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Gross v. N.Y. Times Co. - 82 N.Y.2d 146, 603 N.Y.S.2d 813, 623 N.E.2d 1163 (1993)

Rule:

A statement of opinion relating to matters of public concern which does not contain a provably false factual connotation will receive full constitutional protection. The dispositive inquiry is whether a reasonable reader could have concluded that the articles were conveying facts about the plaintiff. Since falsity is a necessary element of a defamation cause of action and only facts are capable of being proven false, it follows that only statements alleging facts can properly be the subject of a defamation action. The court must examine the challenged statements with a view toward whether the specific language in issue has a precise meaning which is readily understood; whether the statements are capable of being proven true or false; and whether either the full context of the communication in which the statement appears or the broader social context and surrounding circumstances are such as to signal readers or listeners that what is being read or heard is likely to be opinion, not fact.

Facts:

Plaintiff Elliott M. Gross, the former Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, filed a libel action against defendant newspaper New York Times, which published numerous articles asserting that the medical examiner was corrupt and that he had used his authority to protect police officers from suspicion after individuals in their custody died under questionable circumstances. Before discovery had begun, defendant newspaper moved to dismiss the libel claims in plaintiff's complaint, arguing that the articles on which it was based conveyed only the opinion of its staff and their interviewees and were therefore not actionable. The trial court agreed with defendants' position and granted the requested relief. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's determination. Plaintiff sought further review.

Issue:

Does the published news article contain or imply defamatory assertions of fact against the medical examiner?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court held that the medical examiner's complaint was sufficient. In so holding, the court found that (1) the articles appeared in the news section rather than in the editorial section; (2) the articles were calculated to give the impression that they were the product of some deliberation and not written in the heat of the moment; and (3) the newspaper's assertion that the medical examiner engaged in corrupt conduct was published under circumstances that would encourage a reasonable reader to conclude that it stated or implied facts.

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