Defamation, Exaggeration, and “the Worst Little Boy I’ve Ever Seen”

Here’s a newspaper article containing an allegedly defamatory statement by Gov. Sundquist:

[Some death row inmates] accuse the governor of being “mean spirited” because he took away their satellite dish.

Three inmates and four citizens have filed a federal lawsuit against the governor and correction officials, claiming the satellite dish was paid for by donors and that the governor had no right to remove it.

“That was the guy who committed 14 murders and two rapes on death row who said I’m mean spirited,” Sundquist said. “If they think I’m mean-spirited, I would question the origin of the statement. How can someone who’s committed the most grievous crimes imaginable — who is slated to be executed — expect to have television access that most people in Tennessee don’t have.”

“A satellite dish with all the Playboy channels may be dangerous to their health.”

The dish carried HBO and Cinemax to the prisons at Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. The suit was filed by convicted murders Terry King, Rocky Lee Coker and Michael Sample….

Here’s what the Tennessee Commission said in rejecting Coker’s defamation lawsuit, see Coker v. Sundquist (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998) (nonprecedential) (patragraph breaks added):

The main reason why this Commission finds this to be a claim on which relief cannot be granted is that the newspaper article in question is not libelous or injurious at all. Any body who reads that newspaper article gets the message: men who have been sentenced to death in a Tennessee Court deserve to be deprived of entertainment, and when such men use language like “mean spirited” and go to Court to get their entertainment back then they are being ridiculous. Anybody who reads that newspaper article recognizes that the quotation, “That was the guy who committed 14 murders and two rapes on death row who said I’m mean spirited,” was an exaggeration, just a piece of mockery; anybody who reads that newspaper sees that this statement is not statistically precise.

All human-beings — not just holders of high offices and newspaperwomen — use exaggeration sometimes. People may say that men sentenced to death by Tennessee juries have “committed the most grievous crimes imaginable,” while they know that only people like Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot really have “committed the most grievous crimes imaginable.” We all talk like that sometimes, and talking like that is not slander or libel. And there is a very good reason why it is not slander or libel: because nobody who hears it takes it with nit-picking precision.

Take the case of the mother who says to her child, “You’re just the worst little boy I’ve ever seen!” Nobody would say to her seriously, “You’re a liar! You’ve seen two little boys this morning who are worse than he is!” This claimant is arguing that mockery is libel, and it is not….

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