Idaho Supreme Court rules on defamation by implication case

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By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports 

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled in favor of USA Today and KTVB in the defamation case concerning a former teacher. The opinion, released Monday, also defines defamation by inference, clarifying the standards for future potential lawsuits against media outlets and allowing a challenge against an Oregon television station to move forward. Read Monday’s opinion here. 

The case centered around former Idaho teacher James Verity, and reporting done by the USA Today network on a sexual relationship he had with an 18-year-old student at a previous job in Oregon. A lawsuit filed by Verity and his wife named USA Today, KGW, and KTVB as defendants. Read more here.

At the heart of the issue is “defamation by inference” — essentially, whether media outlets can be sued for reporting that isn’t inaccurate, but may imply defamatory information.

In this case, Verity argued that some reporting done on his relationship with the student implied that the student was a minor — not because the reporting outright said so, but because readers and viewers might think she was.

Both KTVB and USA Today said the student was 18, and focused the reporting on state reporting systems and national databases. KGW, however, did not mention the student’s age.

The opinion says to prove defamation by implication, a plaintiff must make a “rigorous showing” that a report must “reasonably understood to impart the false innuendo,” and that the author “intends or endorses the inference.” In other words, context matters, and so does intent.

The court ruled KTVB and USA Today didn’t hit those standards, ordering counts against KTVB and USA Today be dismissed.

The court, however, did affirm the district court’s conclusion that “a reasonable jury could find that KGW impliedly defamed Verity about having a sexual relationship with a minor.”

“Sometimes a communication will not be defamatory on its face, constituting express
defamation, but through context, omission, or other rhetorical devices, a defamatory implication might arise,” the opinion says.

In addition to intent and context, the subject of the reporting also matters, the court ruled. Reporting on a private individual such as Verity is different than reporting on a public figure with access to communication channels, according to the opinion — even if that private individual is a government employee, as was Verity.

“Verity lacked access to a bully pulpit and the USA Today article was published nationally, so any influence Verity could have had to defend his reputation as a public schoolteacher would be minuscule,” the opinion says.

The Supreme Court remanded the case back to district court.

(Full disclosure: The Idaho Press Club joined in an amicus brief in support of USA Today and KTVB. I serve as vice president of the Idaho Press Club and was involved in those discussions.)

Seth Ogilvie contributed to this report.

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