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Being a member of a group won't give you standing for a defamation claim - Internet Defamation BlogInternet Defamation Blog

Being a member of a group won’t give you standing for a defamation claim

Another story illustrating the point I make here over and over, namely, that a statement must accuse you of something before it is defamatory.

Today a Federal Court in New York threw out defamation action against Rolling Stone Magazine. Rolling Stone had published an article about a coed named “Jackie” who contended that she had been raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012.

Three members of that fraternity — George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler — sued for defamation, claiming that the article implied that there was an initiation ritual that required new members to rape a coed. The plaintiffs were not named or identified in the article, but since they were members of the fraternity, they alleged that was enough to cause them humiliation and emotional distress.

When the police later investigated, they could find no support for Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone eventually retracted the story.

Claims of this sort are just too attenuated. In the first place, the judge concluded that “Viewed in the overall context of the article, the quotes cannot reasonably be construed to state or imply that the fraternity enforced a rape requirement as part of an initiation ritual or a pre-condition for membership.” But equally problematic, if the article does not mention any of the plaintiffs by name, then how can they claim that it accuses them of rape? Even it the article left no doubt that the fraternity has such a requirement, perhaps these individuals refused to participate.

I once received a call from a police officer, wanting to sue for defamation based on what a newspaper had said about police officers. He was fed up with all the cop bashing, and he never commits the acts that the article attributes to all police, so he wanted to sue.

Simply stated, your membership in a group won’t be sufficient basis to support a defamation claim, unless the publication specifically states that you committed the acts. Absent extraordinary circumstances, being a member of a group won’t give you standing for a defamation claim.

Ironically and tragically, the frat members caused far more damage to themselves than the Rolling Stone article ever would have. The attorney for these fraternity members should have explained what would result from this action. Had the members done nothing, then at worst, in the future when they mentioned that they were former members of this fraternity, they might on very rare occasions have been met with the question, “Isn’t that the frat that has a rape ritual?” They could have answered, “Rolling Stone published a crazy story about that, but it was false, and the magazine later apologized.” Now, they have forever attached their names to this story, and future prospective employers who do an internet search for their names will be presented with this rape story.

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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