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In assessing whether a publication is defamatory, a court must determine if the communication tends so to harm the reputation of the complaining party as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.
On September 28, 1991, two carloads of young men came from New York City to the campus of Lincoln University (Lincoln) in Chester County. The New Yorkers went to a university dormitory looking for girls, whereupon a fight ensued between the New Yorkers and Lincoln students. The visitors were taken into custody by Lincoln campus police officers. A group of fifty to one hundred Lincoln students gathered and stormed the campus security office where the New Yorkers were being held, and more violence erupted. In the November 1, 1991 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer (Inquirer) an article by B.J. Phillips described the incident at Lincoln. The article focused on the fact that both the New Yorkers and the students involved in the attack were African-American. It also discussed the response of Lincoln's administration and its attempt to minimize the role the students played in the incident. Judge MacElree, who was the district attorney of Chester County at the time of the incident, was mentioned in the article. The article contained the following language, “Writing to a local newspaper, [University President] Sudarkasa questioned remarks by the Chester County district attorney that one of the New Yorkers had been stabbed. When D.A. James MacElree replied with quotations from police reports, the university's lawyer, Richard Glanton, accused him of electioneering -- "the David Duke of Chester County running for office by attacking Lincoln." According to Judge MacElree, Glanton had not made the David Duke remark, but the Inquirer nonetheless printed it and attributed it to Glanton. In April of 1993, Judge MacElree filed suit against Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. and B.J. Phillips for defamation. The court of common pleas granted appellees' preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer. It held that Judge MacElree’s complaint, as a matter of law, failed to meet the legal standard necessary to establish the tort of defamation. The superior court affirmed, agreeing with the trial court that the statement in question was not actionable defamation.
Did the lower courts err in determining as a matter of law that the complaint failed to state a cause of action?
The court reversed and remanded. Inquirer reported that another individual had implied that Judge MacElree, at the time a county prosecutor, had abused his power in order to further racism and his own political aspirations. In fact, however, that individual had made no such reference. Judge MacElree then sued Inquirer for defamation. In ordering Judge MacElree’s lawsuit reinstated, the court noted that appellee's statement could be construed as a charge of official misconduct rather than mere racial bias, and thus dismissal was inappropriate, as a reasonable jury could find that description inflammatory. It also held that the appellate panel erred when it concluded that the mere fact that the subject of the defamatory language was not the main focus did not render the language non-defamatory. The court therefore reversed and remanded.