West v. Thomson Newspapers

In West v. Thomson Newspapers, 872 P.2d 999, 1008 n.13 (Utah 1994), the Court reversed a court of appeals' determination that three newspaper editorial columns, containing accusations that the mayor of La Verkin, Utah, was, among other things, "manipulating the press," were incapable of sustaining a defamatory meaning. Id. at 1000. When it reviewed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the alleged defamers, the court of appeals looked to dictionary definitions of "manipulate," located one featuring negative connotations, and ruled that use of the word was therefore susceptible to defamatory interpretation. Id. at 1008. The court of appeals' approach was a wholly defensible application of the summary judgment review principle that a court must construe against the party seeking summary judgment inferences reasonably emanating from the factual record. "Manipulate" has several decided meanings, at least one of which is unflattering and susceptible to a defamatory interpretation. It is entirely understandable that the court of appeals would conclude that the question of whether the newspapers' accusations constituted defamation should be left to the trier of fact. The Court nevertheless disagreed. The Court said that the court of appeals' "approach effectively eviscerate[d] the court's responsibility to determine initially if the statement is defamatory as a matter of law." Id. at 1009 n.15. The Court noted that in interpreting free speech rights in Utah, article I, section 1 should be read in conjunction with article I, section 15. Section 15 provides that criminal libel is an abuse of the right of free communication, even when the statement is true, unless "published with good motives, and for justifiable ends." In West, the Court also found that historical evidence indicates the "abuse of that right" language "was intended to preserve liability for defamation." 872 P.2d at 1015. There, the Court stated that while defamation actions were preserved, such actions are limited by the governmental restriction clause. Id. Reading the liberty and responsibility clause and the governmental restriction clause together, we concluded that free expression "is 'abused' when the opinion states or implies facts that are false or defamatory." Id.