September 13, 2005

A Defamatory Open Letter?

The Benton County Daily Record refused to run Wake-Up-Wal-Mart's open letter to Lee Scott, calling it defamatory.

It's obvious the lawyers and advertising reps had a busy weekend with this one, but the relevant question remains whether the letter can be considered defamatory. I'm no expert on these matters, but read it for yourself, and then come back, and we can mull it over.

First off, what does defamatory mean?

defamatory: (adj.) harmful and often untrue; tending to discredit or malign

Even though "harmful" and "tending to discredit" are pretty broad standards, I do not see where the direct language of the letter is defamatory. But that's not really relevant, since the implications of its wording can easily be seen as "tending to discredit or malign" Wal-Mart: to wit, by having not already complied with WUWM's demands, Wal-Mart is providing wages and benefits that cannot support families, discriminating against women and minorities, exploiting children, destroying jobs, not working with communities, etc.

These are all hotly contested allegations that Wal-Mart denies. Putting their message in a "work with us" frame is a nice way for WUWM to avoid making possibly defamatory statements directly, but does not absolve the newspaper from liability.

WUWM demanded to know what in the letter was defamatory. But to demand that the newspaper point out what's defamatory in the letter is to demand that they tell it what it already knows.

I'd be interested in hearing from people who know the Arkansas law governing these matters.

UPDATE: Here's more from the BCDR:

Jeff Jeffus, vice president and general manager of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Northwest Arkansas edition, said "there were potential defamatory statements made in it, and there were unsubstantiated claims." He declined to specify what might be defamatory, but said the ad could be resubmitted for review. "We can’t advise them as to what is and is not potentially defamatory," he said.
That's a sensible position to take, and, I think, an accurate one.

Posted by Kevin on September, 13 2005 at 10:31 AM