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Headline didn't libel Watertown man by calling him an Iranian spy after he was arrested only on a charge of being an unregistered Iranian mouthpiece, judge rules

A federal judge has dismissed Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi's libel suit against United Press International for a headline it ran on an op-ed piece that labeled him as an Iranian spy after he was arrested on charges he didn't register with the US government as a foreign agent for work he did to present the Iranian side of things in Western press interviews.

US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs ruled that the headline, "Iranian spy arrested by FBI was wolf in sheep's clothing," was clearly opinion, which is protected under the First Amendment, in part because UPI ran it on a page with other op-ed pieces and because the author's bio at the end of the article identified him as "the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change,” which the judge concluded "confirms that he was writing with a subjective voice and advocating for a particular position."

Also, consumers of news stories know that headlines aren't the place to look for nuance, citing a 2015 case involving a Herald story about the suicide of Boston lead singer Brad Delp:

Media outlets, like UPI, are afforded additional latitude when publishing headlines because a “reasonable reader would not expect [a headline] to include nuanced phrasing.” Scholz v. Delp, 41 N.E.3d 38, 47 (Mass. 2015)

And, in fact, the article itself makes no claims about him being a spy, but rather, accurately states the nature of the charges against him in US District Court in Brooklyn, she wrote.

She added:

Additionally, the headline itself makes clear that it is opinion, not an assertion of fact. Although the term "spy" is arguably capable of being proved false, the phrase "wolf in sheep’s clothing" plainly is not.8 Given that the term "Iranian spy" is followed by "a wolf in sheep’s clothing," the entire headline, read together as it must be, see Cole, 435 N.E.2d at 1025, is clearly a statement of opinion.

She buttressed that thought in a footnote:

The phrase “a wolf in sheep's clothing” is an idiom, incapable of being proved false (or true). Just as Dr. Afrasiabi could not prove that (1) a bird in hand is not actually worth two in the bush,(2) a rose by another name would not smell as sweet, or (3) every cloud does not have a silver lining, he cannot prove that he is not a wolf in sheep's clothing.

She continued that the fact that UPI eventually changed the headline at Afrasiabi's request means nothing because news outlets do that all the time, with no admission of any guilt.

Parties routinely take measures designed to avoid litigation that are not admissions of liability or misconduct. What UPI did in an effort to appease Dr. Afrasiabi does not alter the Court’s finding that the Article’s headline was a non-actionable opinion.

Afrasiabi, who has frequently turned to the court system to right perceived wrongs, has appealed the ruling to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.

The criminal case against him, under the same law used to snare Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, has yet to come to trial.

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Comments

What isn't commonly known is that print editors are the ones who often determine the headline, no the journalist or writer. This tends to be a point of contention because it's not uncommon for the editor to choose a headline which doesn't match the substance of the article. If the headline is poorly written or a bad match for the story, the author receives the criticism even when they had no say in the headline themselves.

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