A man is charged with first-degree murder of his mother — is it defamatory to wrongly connect him to a first-degree murder of a police informant?

June 16, 2014

Possibly, says the Third Circuit in Wallace v. Media News Group, Inc. (3d Cir. June 13, 2014), largely because the apparently calculated murder of the informant could be seen as more culpable than the possibly insane murder of the mother:

… [Marcus W.] Wallace is a pretrial detainee awaiting trial on first-degree murder and other charges in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, for allegedly bludgeoning his mother to death in her home. Wallace’s charges have attracted a great deal of local media attention from various sources, including a newspaper called the Chambersburg Public Opinion (“Public Opinion”). The Public Opinion is owned by MNG, and it has published numerous articles about Wallace’s case along with his mug shot.

In a March 10, 2012 article titled “Water boy, you’re fired,” however, the Public Opinion printed a picture of Wallace’s mug shot next to an article about a separate and unrelated first-degree murder charge pending against Jeffrey Miles (the “Miles article”). The article reports that Miles has been accused of stabbing a police informant to death and dumping her body in the woods. The caption “Miles” appeared underneath Wallace’s mug shot, and the article does not otherwise mention Wallace. The Public Opinion published a correction the next day by printing Miles’s actual mug shot….

Wallace argues that the Miles article is defamatory because the placement of his photograph in the article implies that he has been charged with the crimes that have been attributed to Miles instead. A false statement that a plaintiff has been charged with a particular crime does appear capable of a defamatory meaning under Pennsylvania law as a general matter.

The District Court nevertheless concluded that Wallace failed to state a claim for defamation for two reasons. First, the District Court concluded that the Miles article “cannot be reasonably construed or understood as intended to refer to Wallace” because, although it includes Wallace’s photograph, its text refers exclusively to Miles and identifies Miles by name and address. The District Court did not cite any authority in support of this ruling, and we believe it premature to resolve this issue as a matter of law at the pleading stage.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has long held that “[t]he fact that the plaintiff is not specifically named [in the publication] is not controlling. A party defamed need not be specifically named, if pointed to by description or circumstances tending to identify him.” …[P]lacement of a plaintiff’s photograph in … an article could constitute a “description or circumstance identifying” the plaintiff. Indeed, other jurisdictions — including the United States Supreme Court in a diversity action — have so concluded under facts similar to those alleged here…. We … decline to hold as a matter of law that no reasonable person could believe that the Miles article applies to Wallace even though it contains Wallace’s photograph.

Second, the District Court noted Wallace’s admission in a filing in his criminal case that his reputation already has been damaged by media coverage of his own charges and concluded that “[one] who by his own actions has so badly damaged his reputation cannot be further injured by the allegedly false statement on another matter.”

This reasoning is problematic. In the first place, Wallace stands accused of murder but has not been convicted. Unless he is convicted, it is not fair to say that he has lowered his reputation “by his own actions.” In any event, resolution of this issue too is premature at the pleading stage.

In concluding otherwise, the District Court relied solely on one of its unpublished opinions applying the so-called “libel-proof plaintiff” doctrine …. We see no indication that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine as a bar to liability, at the pleading stage or otherwise. To the contrary, … the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appears to treat the issue of a plaintiff’s already tarnished reputation as going to damages.

MNG has not directly defended the District Court’s reasoning but has raised a similar point by way of arguing that its publication of Wallace’s photograph in the Miles article was not materially false. The falsity of an allegedly defamatory statement “‘must go to the gist or sting of the defamation.’” “The test [for falsity] is whether the alleged libel as published would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.”

MNG argues that the only “sting” of the Miles article is the implication that Wallace has been charged with first-degree murder, which he has. MNG further argues that publication of that truth could not produce a “different effect on the mind of the reader” because Wallace himself, in a motion for a change of venue in his criminal case, has admitted that his reputation already has been tarnished by prior press coverage of his charges.

These arguments are not without some appeal, but we ultimately reject them at this stage. Wallace’s complaint raises the reasonable inference that the “sting” of the Miles article is more than the mere fact that he faces a charge of first-degree murder. Wallace’s charges arise from the beating death of his own mother in her home. Many of the Public Opinion articles about Wallace’s case that predated the Miles article mention multiple inquiries into Wallace’s mental competence to stand trial, and one of them reports that a psychiatric expert was “asked to provide an opinion as to whether Wallace was suffering from any kind of mental condition … at the time of the crime that would have impaired his ability to understand the nature of what he did and the difference between right and wrong.”

The Miles article, by contrast, reports charges of stabbing a police informant to death and dumping her body in the woods. The article makes no reference to Miles’s mental health. Thus, as grave as the charges against Wallace are, Wallace’s complaint suggests that reasonable members of the public could reach materially different conclusions about such things as his culpability and danger to society at large if they believe that he has been charged with committing the different (and additional) murder attributed to Miles. For that reason, we decline to treat these two alleged murders as interchangeable for reputational purposes at the pleading stage.

The decisions on which MNG relies do not persuade us otherwise. In the most analogous of those decisions, the plaintiff argued that a television series defamed him by identifying him as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood gang because, [among other things], the same television series notified its viewers that Aryan Brotherhood members must commit a murder or attempted murder in order to be inducted. The court held that the defamatory implication was not materially false because the plaintiff actually had committed a gang-related murder in the past. In that case, however, the allegedly defamatory statement implied the commission only of a generic, unspecified murder and not, as here, a specific murder that differs in various respects from the murder actually charged….

[Footnote: [T]he District Court [also] wrote that MNG’s prompt correction of the article “supports a conclusion that the article using Wallace’s mug shot was in error and not done out of malice to Wallace.” The District Court did not base its ruling on that point or otherwise explain its relevance. Actual malice is required for liability only when the plaintiff is a public figure and the speech relates to matters of public concern, and private figures may seek compensatory damages for defamation under Pennsylvania law and the First Amendment on the basis of mere negligence.

The District Court did not discuss whether Wallace is a public figure but, in light of its reference to malice at the pleading stage, we directed the parties to brief that issue. MNG has declined to do so because, [among other things], Wallace’s “status as a public figure does not bear on any ground on which [MNG] moved to dismiss his claims.” We will thus not consider the issue further, though we note that, even if MNG’s correction “supports a conclusion” that it did not act with malice, it does not provide a basis for dismissing Wallace’s complaint at the pleading stage.]

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh · June 16, 2014