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Tennessee Court of Appeals requires specificity in group libel cases

By J. DeVoy

First addressed by Eugene Volokh, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims in a group libel case because they were not specifically identified by the defendant’s statements.  The plaintiffs, a cabaret and three performers, sued Shelby County Commissioner Michael Ritz for comments he made about the nature of adult entertainment.  Among other things, he said that the women involved “almost without exception” have “an addiction to drugs or alcohol” and “were sexually abused by a family member.”  More, Ritz said that strip clubs “feed on that,” creating a “vicious cycle”

The Court of Appeals found the plaintiffs did not allege that Ritz’s statements identified the plaintiffs by “reasonable implication.”  In fact, the court found the plaintiffs didn’t even claim that Ritz’s comments concerned them or any other strippers or cabarets in Shelby county.  It’s hard to claim Ritz was singling out these plaintiffs when he was apparently talking about every stripper and nudie bar in existence.  The opinion, available here, made another point:

Equally absent from the complaint are allegations that the Commissioner intended the statement to refer to the plaintiffs, that a reasonable person hearing the statement would believe it referred to the plaintiffs, or that extrinsic facts existed to show that the statement referred to the plaintiffs.

It’s hard out there for a fungible, faceless defamation plaintiff!  The underlying significance of the opinion is its holding that group libel is exactly that: the defamation of a group.  Where there is no reasonable identification of a person, business or other entity, the claim fails; broad statements about classes of people are not “of and concerning” the lumpenplaintiffteriat.

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