Statement of Opinion Not Defamatory

Context of statements must be considered, court says.

Church Law and Tax 1996-05-01

Libel and Slander

Key point. Ordinarily, only statements of fact can be defamatory, and not expressions of opinion. However, the entire context of an expression must be considered in deciding whether it is a statement of opinion or fact.

An Ohio court ruled that a derogatory statement made in a public meeting was not defamatory since it was a statement of opinion rather than fact. A youth soccer league was conducing its annual meeting with some 50 persons in attendance. One member stood up during the meeting and pointed directly at another member (an accountant) as he entered the room, and said in a loud, boisterous voice, “I object to him attending this meeting. He is a criminal and he’s stolen lots of money from us.” The accountant later sued the man who made the derogatory statement, claiming that the statement amounted to defamation. A court disagreed, noting that “a statement of opinion is absolutely privileged “and cannot be defamatory. The court acknowledged that the entire context of a statement must be taken into account in deciding whether it is an expression of fact or opinion. However, it concluded that the context of the allegedly defamatory statement in this case supported the conclusion that it was an expression of opinion. The court pointed out that the accountant’s status as a member was a longstanding and heated controversy within the soccer league, and accordingly the allegedly defamatory statement “would be viewed by those in attendance at the meeting as an expression of opinion, epithets, or hyperbole, but not as assertions of objective fact.” In summary, statements opinion ordinarily cannot be defamatory, but whether a particular statement is one of fact or opinion is one that must be made after considering the context in which the statement was made. Biesiada v. Gyekenyesi, 649 N.E.2d 924 (Ohio Mun. 1994). [ Defamation—Defenses]

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