Brief Fact Summary.
The defendant alleged in a newspaper article that the plaintiff had lied under oath in a judicial proceeding.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The First Amendment does not prohibit the application under Ohio’s libel law to the defamations in the article.
Unlike a subjective assertion the averred defamatory language is an articulation of an objectively verifiable event.View Full Point of Law
The defendant authored an article in an Ohio newspaper implying that the plaintiff, a local high school wrestling coach, lied under oath in a judicial proceeding about an incident involving himself and his team. The headline of the article read: “Maple [Heights High School] beat the law with the ‘big lie.’” The article named the plaintiff specifically as having lied under oath, and the plaintiff commenced this defamation action.
Do Ohio libel laws apply to this case despite First Amendment concerns?
Yes. The lower court judgement is reversed and the case remanded.
The Court first uses Othello, the play by William Shakespeare, to show the application of the common law to situations of injury to a person’s reputation due to defamatory statements. Defamatory statements have long been considered actionable without the burden of restrictions until the fair comment exception was introduced. This exception provides legal immunity for the honest expression of opinion on matters of legitimate public interest that was not given solely to cause harm. The Court then evaluates prior case law and determines that Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. was not intended to create a wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be considered an opinion. Expressions of opinion often imply an assertion of objective fact. There need not be a specifically defined dichotomy between opinion and fact for the courts to understand the difference in practice. An opinion which does not provide a provably false factual connotation will receive full constitutional protections. In this case, whether or not the plaintiff committed perjury is sufficiently factual to be proven true or false, so it cannot be considered an opinion anyway.