Group Libel

An interesting and correct decision from the Tennessee Court of Appeals, in Steele v. Ritz (decided yesterday):

[A]n adult cabaret and three female employees of adult entertainment businesses and cabarets in Shelby County filed suit against Shelby County Commissioner Michael Ritz …. The plaintiffs alleged that Commissioner Ritz was quoted as stating that “almost without exception, these girls were sexually abused by a family member … and have an addiction to drugs or alcohol … these clubs feed on that. It is a vicious cycle.” …

[T]he “of and concerning” requirement [of libel law] confines actionable defamation to statements made against an “ascertained or ascertainable person, and that person must be the plaintiff.” …

Although it contains an alleged defamatory statement, the [Ritz] statement does not expressly mention the plaintiffs. There is no allegation that the statement refers to the plaintiffs by reasonable implication, that Commissioner Ritz made the statement with knowledge of its falsity or defamatory nature as to the plaintiffs, or that the statement was made “of and concerning” the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs do not allege that “these girls” and “these clubs” referenced in the statement are or include the plaintiffs, nor is there an allegation that the statement referred to adult entertainment businesses in Shelby County or the female employees thereof. Equally absent from the complaint are allegations that the Commissioner intended the statement to refer to the plaintiffs, that a reasonable person hearing the statement would believe it referred to the plaintiffs, or that extrinsic facts existed to show that the statement referred to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs’ complaint fails to offer so much as a conclusory allegation that a connection existed between the alleged statement and the plaintiffs, their profession, or adult establishments generally….