February 2014 Bar Bulletin
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February 2014 Bar Bulletin

True and False Impression: Recent Case Dismisses the Gist of Defamation

By Karen Sutherland

 

A recent Washington Court of Appeals case, U.S. Mission Corp. v. KIRO TV, Inc.,1 addressed the issue of whether a true statement that allegedly creates a false impression is actionable as defamation.

The case involved a story by KIRO TV that was headlined, "Jailhouse Used to Find Door-to-Door Solicitors."2 The story began with the words, "A transitional housing service in Seattle [U.S. Mission] has been sending a bevy of historically violent felons, burglars and robbers to your house to collect money - and there isn't a thing you can do about it."3

KIRO TV subsequently ran a second story with the headline, "Homeless Charity Mandates Panhandling, Takes Big Cut." The second story began: "A KIRO Team 7 Investigation into door-to-door fundraising by the United States Mission prompts King County to sever ties with the program. But the charity's troubles might not end there."4

U.S. Mission filed suit for defamation, which was dismissed by the trial court under CR 12(c). In upholding the dismissal, the Court of Appeals described the standard for a prima facie case of defamation as follows:

To establish a prima facie claim of defamation, a private plaintiff must show falsity, unprivileged communication, fault, and damages. To prevail in a defamation action, "[t]he defamatory character of the language must be apparent from the words themselves." Where language is ambiguous, "resolution in favor of a 'disparaging connotation' is not justified." A defamation claim may not be based on the negative implication of true statements. This is because "[d]efamatory meaning may not be imputed to true statements."

The element primarily at issue in this case is falsity. "Falsity in a classic defamation case is a false statement." In a defamation by implication case, the plaintiff must show that the statement at issue is provably false, either because it is a false statement or because it leaves a false impression.5

Applying this test, the Court of Appeals noted that U.S. Mission alleged KIRO's stories included four false "gists" or "stings." The Court held that what constitutes the gist or sting of a story is its substance when considered as a whole, which is a question for the court,6 and found the gist of the stories to be as follows:

U.S. Mission is among the places to which recently released inmates from the county jail, including felons, are referred for transitional housing; that some of the residents of U.S. Mission are or have been persons with felony or non-felony convictions; that residents of U.S. Mission, including recently released inmates, are required to solicit donations in order to continue living there; and that U.S. Mission takes residents into neighborhoods so they can solicit donations.7


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