Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's not defamatory to accuse inmate of cooperating with authorities

How would you like it if someone accused you of cooperating with the police? What if you were in jail and other inmates frowned upon that allegation? Is it defamation? The Second Circuit says it is not.

The case is Michtavi v. New York Daily News, decided on November 25. Michtavi is in jail, convicted on a narcotics offense. After the Daily News wrote that he planned to cooperate with police and testify against an organized crime figure with whom he was associated, he sued for defamation.

Courts ask what a "right-thinking person" would think of the allegation in determining whether the plaintiff is entitled to protect his reputation in a defamation suit. The Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Kearse and Gardephe, D.J.) notes that the Restatement on Torts says that a statement is not defamatory if the relevant audience carries "standards [that] are so anti-social that it is not proper for the courts to recognize them."

Well, you know where this is going. The relevant audience here is the inmate population which doesn't like cooperating witnesses. This is not enough for plaintiff. In the context of a defamation case, no one really cares what inmates think. Citing cases which include a State Supreme Court decision from 1941 and a Southern District case written by Judge Mukasey (who later became Bush 43's Attorney General), the Second Circuit notes that "The population of right-thinking persons unambiguously excludes 'those who would think ill of one who legitimately cooperates with law enforcement.'"

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