R.I. SC sides with radio host, reporter in lawsuit over 'roast'

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 11, 2012, 2:40pm


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) - The Rhode Island Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court's judgment in favor of a well-known local radio talk show host who engaged in an on-air rant over a "roast" of local public figures.

In its July 5 opinion, the Court mostly affirmed the Providence County Superior Court's judgment.

The lawsuit stems from an article written by defendant Katherine Gregg.

The article, published by the Providence Journal, described an annual St. Patrick's Day lunch hosted by William Murphy, then-speaker of the state House of Representatives, at one of plaintiff Robert I. Burke's restaurants.

The lunch, a private event, was a presentation of comedic insults -- more commonly referred to as a "roast" -- of local officials and other public figures.

In her article for the Journal, Gregg was openly critical of an "off the record" rule that allowed members of the media to attend the event, but banned them from disclosing the jokes made during the lunch.

Her article attributed the creation and enforcement of the policy to both Burke and Murphy.

Apparently incensed by Gregg's article, defendant Dan Yorke used his talk show as a platform to hurl a series of "crude and disparaging" remarks at Burke from the "safety of his microphone," according to court documents.

Burke eventually filed a complaint in Providence Superior Court, alleging various counts of libel and slander against Gregg, the Providence Journal Company, Yorke and Citadel Broadcasting Corporation.

Two other plaintiffs also joined in the action: BOEA Inc. and the Food and Beverage Corporation.

The defendants all filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, and those motions were granted by the lower court.

The plaintiffs appealed.

In its 15-page opinion, the state's high court for the most part sided with the lower court.

It agreed with the superior court judge that Gregg's attribution of the "off the record" rule to Burke, even if false or inaccurate, was not defamatory.

"In our opinion, when considered in its totality from the point of view of an ordinary reader, Gregg's article can reasonably be understood to communicate that Burke, in cooperation with Murphy, imposed an 'off the record' rule because he was concerned that if the brash, politically-incorrect humor employed during the lunch was read out of context, it might create 'an impression of an event that is mean-spirited,'" Justice Francis X. Flaherty wrote.

"That sentiment would be at odds with the purpose of the event, which in Burke's own words, was intended 'to lessen the polarization that has become rife in our politics.'"

Flaherty continued, "We agree with the motion justice that even though the article has an inescapably critical tone, it also suggests that Burke and Murphy had a prudent, thoughtful, and logical reason for imposing an 'off the record' rule."

The plaintiffs, the Court explained, did not argue that Gregg's explanation of the rule's underlying rationale is in any way inaccurate.

"Even if her statements were 'slightly off the mark factually,' we cannot conceive of how these comments could reasonably be interpreted to have injuriously affected Burke's reputation, degraded him in society, or brought him into public hatred and contempt," Flaherty wrote.

Simply put, the offending statement -- that Burke created and enforced the "off the record" rule -- is "unambiguous," the Court said.

"The plaintiffs have not provided, and we have not found, any legal support for their suggestion that a single individual's opinion drawn from a contested statement is proof that the statement itself was in fact defamatory," Flaherty wrote.

As for Yorke's remarks, the Court said it must be kept in mind that they were expressed in the form of an opinion.

"Even though it is true that a statement of opinion may be defamatory, opinion statements are afforded greater protection under our law," Flaherty noted, concluding the lower court did not err in dismissing the plaintiffs' defamation claims against Yorke and Citadel.

"It is beyond question that Burke was justifiably offended by Yorke's March 23 broadcast. Yorke's rambling diatribe would without a doubt ruffle the sensibilities of any listener at whom it was directed."

However, his comments were based on "disclosed, non-defamatory facts," the Court said.

As for the plaintiffs' contractual claims against Yorke and Citadel, the Court remanded one issue -- an alleged breach of contract by Citadel -- to the lower court for a hearing on the defendant's motion to dismiss.

Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell and Justice William P. Robinson III did not participate in the decision.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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