Call Me Unreliable

Who knew that the classic Sinatra song is also a mini primer on libel law? It turns out you can call someone unreliable and win an ensuing libel suit. At least according to the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. That court recently decided a suit brought by the Turkish Coalition of America. The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota posted a list of “Unreliable Web sites.” According to the Center:

“We do not recommend these sites. Warning should be given to students writing papers that they should not use these sites because of denial, support by an unknown organization, or contents that are a strange mix of fact and opinion.”

The TCA’s Web site was the first one on the list. Apparently, students at the University who inquired about citing to the site in research papers were strongly discouraged. After a round of lawyer letters, the TCA filed suit. It claimed that the University defamed the organization by including the Web site on its list. But the trial court and the appellate court pointed out that terms like “unreliable” are opinions. And that means they can’t be proven true or false. They are, as the court noted, “in the eye of the beholder.” And since a defamation plaintiff has to prove that the statement is false, the inherent inability to do so dooms the claim.

That holding was at least mildly ironic in this case, since the protection for opinion is rooted in the First Amendment protection for freedom of speech. TCA also claimed that the University’s actions in discouraging the use of its Web site violated its First Amendment rights. But the court rejected that argument, noting that no students were prohibited from reading the site, but merely discouraged from relying on it for academic purposes. Again, the court noted that the University had the right to express its opinion. I wonder if you think that’s fair. Anyone care to opine?