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Memphis Pub. Co. v. Nichols - 569 S.W.2d 412 (Tenn. 1978)

Rule:

The proper question is whether meaning reasonably conveyed by the published words is defamatory, that is, whether the libel as published would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.

Facts:

The publisher, Memphis Pub. Co., printed an article that implied that plaintiff wife, Ruth Ann Nichols, and another man were having an adulterous affair and were caught by Bobby Lee Nichols, plaintiff husband. In Nichols’ action alleging defamation and invasion of privacy, the trial court granted Memphis Pub. Co.'s motion for a directed verdict. The appellate court reversed and remanded for a new trial. On certiorari, the court granted remanded the Ruth Ann Nichols’ action for libel for a new trial, but dismissed the other causes of action. 

Issue:

Did Memphis Pub. Co. commit defamation and invasion of privacy by publishing the said article?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court held that an ordinary negligence standard applied in defamation actions brought by private individuals such as Ruth Ann Nichols against the publisher as a member of the media because it was the only standard of liability that achieved the desired accommodation of First Amendment guarantees and the interests in protecting Nichols’ individual reputation. The court found that publication of the complete facts could not conceivably have led the reader to conclude that the wife was involved in adultery, but that the statement as published so distorted the truth as to make the entire article false and defamatory, resulting in injury to the wife's reputation. Thus, the court affirmed the appellate court's decision remanding the wife's action for defamation for a new trial but dismissed all other causes of action.

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