February 24, 2011

No chance for LaChance

In a to-the-point rescript opinion in Edward D. LaChance, Jr. v. Boston Herald et al.,the Appeals Court of Massachusetts this week affirmed a summary judgment dismissal of defamation and other claims brought by LaChance, an incarcerated prisoner, against the Boston Herald and one of its reporters.

In 2004, while serving a sentence for aggravated rape, LaChance placed a personal ad on a Web site known as “Inmate Connections” (in violation of prison rules barring maximum security inmates from Internet access). 

In 2005, the Herald published three articles on the topic of online “dating" by incarcerated felons. The articles variously stated—incorrectly—that LaChance had been convicted of manslaughter, that he claimed in his ad to be in prison for manslaughter, and that he had committed a brutal sexual attack on an elderly woman.

The Herald and its reporter concede that those assertions were factually inaccurate, in that LaChance was not in prison for manslaughter, did not make such a claim in his ad, and did not commit a crime against an elderly victim.

The trial court ruled that the alleged defamatory statements were either privileged or substantially true, and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

In affirming the dismissal, the Appeals Court concluded that the newspaper articles at issue addressed matters of public concern—the dangers of interacting with violent felons online—and that as a result of his own actions—whereby LaChance thrust himself into a particular public controversy—LaChance was a limited purpose public figure. In arriving at that conclusion, the court noted that LaChance’s ad was misleading and controversial, finding particularly deceptive his assertion that, “I’m not a bad man and I treat everyone the way I wish to be treated.”

The court then turned to whether the subject statements were false and made with actual malice.

Although the articles contained inaccuracies (even a literal falsehood), the court concluded that such statements did not rise to the level of actionable falsity or defamation. The gist of the articles was accurate: inmate ads should not be trusted in general, and LaChance’s ad in particular was dangerously deceptive in that he withheld details of his violent criminal history and portrayed himself in a light that might seem more innocuous to potential respondents on the match-making site.

As LaChance offered no proof of actual malice—that is, that the statements were published with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for whether they were false—LaChance failed to carry his burden of proving actual malice.

Finally, the court rejected LaChance’s contention that the fair reporting privilege did not apply to his case. The published article contained a fair and accurate report of a court docket entry as it existed at the time of publication. Even though the entry was in error, it was not corrected until months after the publication of the articles, and the paper had no way of knowing about the error at the time of publication. As such, the reference to a brutal sexual attack on an elderly woman was, although inaccurate, privileged and insulated from a claim of defamation.

And to answer your question ("Who would represent this guy in a defamation case?") ... yes, LaChance represented himself. The media defendants were represented by Liz Ritvo.

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