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Defamation Claims Do Not Cover All Past Ills

Posted in Guest Bloggers, Mixed Bag of Nuts

—Joy Newborg, Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.

By now, you may have heard that the defamation lawsuit brought against Barbara Walters in connection with her autobiography, Audition: A Memior, has been dismissed for insufficient merit. However, it brings up a few interesting questions.

In her autobiography, Walters made a few innocuous statements about her daughter and a school friend that occurred over twenty years ago. When reading the book, many of us probably didn’t think much of these references. However, a woman stepped forward to claim those references were regarding her. She further stated that the story was not accurate, proceeded to disclose more personal details of what had occurred (including details that did not show Walters in a good light), and sued Walters for defamation. As discussed in my prior blog, “Twittering Grievances May be Expensive,” to claim defamation, the statements  need to have injured a person’s reputation and expose them to public hatred, contempt or degradation, which the person making the statement knows or should have known the statement was false.

Even though it sounds like this woman may not have been treated well by Walters, and may be justified in still feeling hurt by the events of 20 years ago, the real question for defamation is did the references in the book cause current harm to her reputation?

The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts found that it did not because “the small number of people who would have been able to recognize the book’s oblique references to the plaintiff would also likely have been aware of the circumstances of her expulsion that were the subject matter of the accused statements.” So this begs the question of why did this woman really bring the lawsuit, as she may have now caused herself the harm to her reputation and community standing that she indicates she wanted to avoid?