Lucky for the Herald that the Inside Track was an entertainment column, not straight news reporting: The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today the Herald did not libel Donald Thomas Scholz in the Track's reporting on the suicide of Boston lead singer Brad Delp in part because the column's stock in trade was opinion, not straight facts.
Scholz, who founded the band Boston in the 1970s, sued Delp's ex-wife and the Herald, claiming they defamed him by blaming him for Delp's suicide.
But the state's highest court said otherwise, because the Herald was only printing opinions, not asserting the allegation as a fact, and opinions are protected under the First Amendment - and that those opinions did not stem from "undisclosed facts" that Track Gals Laura Raposa and Gayle Fee were sitting on.
Because the statements even arguably attributing responsibility for Brad's suicide to Scholz were statements of opinion and not verifiable fact, and therefore could not form the basis of a claim of defamation, we conclude that summary judgment properly was entered for the Herald by the second motion judge, and that the first motion judge correctly allowed Micki's motion for summary judgment.
The court further explained its thinking:
Scholz contends that the Herald articles are actionable because they impliedly assert that Scholz was responsible for Brad's death. To support his argument that the articles contain actionable statements of fact, Scholz points in particular to the headline of the March 16, 2007, article, "Pal's snub made Delp do it: Boston rocker's ex-wife speaks." We do not agree.
We begin with the observation that, ordinarily, ascertaining the reason or reasons a person has committed suicide would require speculation; although a view might be expressed as to the cause, rarely will it be the case that even those who were close to the individual will know what he or she was thinking and feeling when that final decision was made. While we can imagine rare circumstances in which the motivations for a suicide would be manifestly clear and unambiguous, this is not such a case.
The statements at issue could not have been understood by a reasonable reader to have been anything but opinions regarding the reason Brad committed suicide. ...[T]he use of cautionary terms in the articles, such as "may have" and "reportedly," relayed to the reader that the authors were "indulging in speculation." ... The most extreme language appeared in the headline, which a reasonable reader would not expect to include nuanced phrasing. ...
Moreover, the Herald articles appeared in an entertainment news column. ... In context, a reasonable reader would consider the statements about the cause of Brad's suicide to have been nothing more than conjecture or speculation, reflecting the opinion of the speaker. ...
We conclude that, here, "[t]he logical nexus between the facts and the opinion was sufficiently apparent to render unreasonable any inference that 'the derogatory opinion must have been based on undisclosed facts.'"