By: Joe Strupp
In a victory for headline-writing freedom, a California judge has thrown out a lawsuit that accused an alternative newspaper of defamation based on a misleading subhed.
San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman on Friday dismissed the case brought forth by a local obstetrician against San Luis Obispo New Times, ruling that the subhed on a story about Dr. Glenn Cooperman’s legal troubles did not amount to defamation.
Although the story’s subhed, “Obstetrician has probationary license, past of sexual impropriety” misled readers into thinking the probation had been related to the past sexual impropriety, the judge ruled that the proceeding story clearly reported that it was not connected.
“Taken as a whole, it cannot be said that the inferences advanced by the sub-heading were of such substantial deviation that they would produce a different effect on the reader,” the judge wrote in his ruling, which was released Monday. “Especially since the article itself clearly pointed out that the Medical Board ‘found insufficient evidence had been presented to support sexual misconduct allegations’.”
Published in June 2004 in New Times, the article reported on a malpractice judgment against Cooperman and also mentioned his license had been suspended for lying to the state medical board and that he had agreed to pay a $25,000 settlement to a former patient who had sued him for alleged sexual impropriety.
Cooperman’s attorneys argued that the subhed misled readers into thinking the suspension was linked to the past sexual improprieties, when it was not. The judge ruled, however, that the story was clear enough in its reporting as to correct any misleading elements of the subhed.
“I think it is the right ruling under defamation law,” said Jeffrey Riffer, New Times’ attorney on the case. “I think it is important that newspapers can summarize in headlines a complex subject.” He also said such a ruling will ease worries among some newspapers who may be reluctant to report on professionals like doctors, who often have more resources to go after them in court.
“They are usually more of a risk for suing,” Riffer said. “They tend to get more upset.”
David Hagan, Cooperman’s lawyer, said in response to the ruling, “I can see their point.” But, he added, “you have the power of the press that prevailed, but you also have a private citizen whose career was destroyed as a result. I do not see the benefit of that.”