Brief Fact Summary.
Milkovich’s high school wrestling team was put on probation after a brawl with a competing team. The judge granted the parents’ restraining order after Milkovich testified at a judicial hearing denying that he incited the brawl. A sports columnist who attended the meet where the brawl occurred but did not attend the judicial hearing published a column alleging that Milkovich had perjured himself in downplaying his role in the brawl..
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
An opinion may be actionable in a suit for defamation if the opinion is sufficiently factual.
Unlike a subjective assertion the averred defamatory language is an articulation of an objectively verifiable event.View Full Point of Law
Milkovich’s high school wrestling team brawled with a competing team. After a hearing, the Ohio High School Athletic Association censured Milkovich and put his team on probation. Parents sued to enjoin enforcement of the probation, and Milkovich testified at a judicial hearing denying that he had incited the brawl. The judge granted the parents’ restraining order. A sports columnist who attended the meet where the brawl occurred but did not attend the judicial hearing published a column alleging that Milkovich had perjured himself in downplaying his role in the brawl. Milkovich sued for libel per se.
Could a reasonable factfinder conclude that the column’s opinion implied an assertion that Milkovich perjured himself in the judicial hearing?
Reversed and remanded.
Yes, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the column implied an assertion that Milkovich perjured himself in the judicial hearing.
The challenged statements cannot reasonably be interpreted as either stating or implying defamatory facts about Milkovich. Conjecture is vital to the free flow of ideas and opinions as imaginative expression. The language of the column made clear to readers that the columnist was engaging in speculation, personal judgment, emotional rhetoric, and moral outrage.
Gertz did not intend to create a wholesale defamation exemption for anything labeled as an opinion. Anyone could couch a statement as an opinion, but “In my opinion, Jones is a liar” can be just as reputationally damaging as “Jones is a liar.”
The Hepps standard protects statements of opinion relating to matters of public concern which do not contain provably false factual connotations. The Bresler-Letter Carriers-Falwell standard protects statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual. The Times–Gertz culpability requirements provide that where a statement of opinion on a matter of public concern reasonably implies false and defamatory facts regarding public figures or officials, those individuals must show that the statements were made with actual malice; and where regarding private figures, some level of fault. Finally, the Bose standard provides assurance that application of these standards will be done in a manner to protect freedom of expression.
Whether Milkovich perjured himself during the judicial hearing or not is an objectively verifiable event.