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Given the statement, "John failed to respond to a criminal court summons, and he moved out of the state."

Assuming that it is false that John failed to respond to a criminal court summons, but it is true that he moved out of state, but a year before charges were filed (in other words, it is true that he moved out of state just not for the purpose of evading the summons).

As presented in the statement above, is the statement "and he moved out of the state" a defamatory and should it therefore be plead as such in a libel complaint as written above?

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For the statement to be defamatory, it must also be false. The statement is literally true because it states that plaintiff moves out of the state, which you stipulate is true. Case dismissed. However, one might argue that the statement implies another false statement, something like "B moved out of state in order to avoid a criminal summons". If the statement had been "John failed to respond to a criminal court summons, and then he moved out of the state" the implication is even stronger. A damaging implication of a statement can be defamatory, see for example Woods v. Evansville Press, Cochran v. Indpls. Newspapers, Verity v. USA Today and citations therein. In your jurisdiction, the courts would have to recognize defamation by implication (which I will assume). In the present case, the principle appealed to in Cochran would be apt: "If the article is capable of two meanings, one libelous and one not, the case should properly go to the jury". In that case, "the test is the effect which the article is fairly calculated to produce and impression it would naturally engender in the mind of the average person".

It is very easy to establish that a statement of the above type ("A, and B") naturally engenders in the mind of the average person that the events A and B took place in that order (millions of students have lost points in Logic 150 because they misunderstand the commutativity of conjunction) – given the statement, it is natural to conclude that the events took place in that order, and that is plainly false. It is a little less easy but still possible to establish that the average person would conclude that the reason for moving out of state was to evade a summons, again a false statement. Whether or not plaintiff was harmed by the statement can't be judged from the above sentence – it does not constitute defamation per se. It is not a crime to move out of state.

  • Thank you for that thoughtful post. To sum up: So in those states that recognize defamation by implication, this factual question, albeit not a strong one for the Plaintiff would go to a jury? – Gill Hamel Oct 21 at 17:00
  • Yes, though I should have said "jurisdiction" since the US 8th does not recognize defamation by implication, cf. Price v, Viking, 881 F.2d 1426 – user6726 Oct 21 at 20:59
  • @user6726 The Eighth Circuit does recognize defamation by implication, depending on the jurisdictional source of substantive law and on whether the claimant is a public official under the NYT standard. See Toney v. WCCO TV, 85 F.3d 383 (8th Cir. 1996) and Michaelis v. CBS, Inc., 119 F.3d 697 (8th Cir. 1997). – Joseph_N Oct 22 at 14:23
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If you want a logical statement break down lets assume the following conditions:

  • Statement X = "John failed to respond to a criminal court summons"
  • Statement Y = "John moved out of the state."
  • Statement X is False.
  • Statement Y is True.
  • Statement Z = X AND Y.
  • Is x defamatory? Is Y defamatory? Is Z defamatory?

For the first question, X is false and therefor defamatory per say (A false statement that need not prove any damage i.e. insinuating criminal responsibility when none legally exists).

For the second, Y is a true statement and thus not defamatory in and of its' self.

For Z, which is Statement X AND Statement Y combined, we need to understand logical operands. In Logic, two statements are combined with AND, OR, XOR (either this or that) and NOR. These function like arithmetic in many of the same rules in addition. Additionally, the ! before any statement will mean that the statement is to be inverted, so !X in our logic is true while !Y is false (because we assume the inverse of both statements. X is false and Y is true.).

Each opperand will change the nature of how we evaluate Z's truth or false. OR will mean for Z to be true, at least one statement must be true (so x, y, or both x and y must be true for z to be true). For XOR to be true, exactly one statement must be true (Z is false if either both are false or both are true, but not if just one is true). NOR means that both statements must be false for z to be true. AND means that for Z to be true, both x and y must be true.

So to answer your question, the fact that Y is a true statement does not make the overall statement (X AND Y) true. While "He moved to the other state" is fact, the fact that it was combined with a false statement by "AND" means that the full statement we is defamatory even if half of it is factual. It's the part about failing to respond that is false about the statement.

Suppose I say "All animals with four paws are dogs and Cats have four paws" the statement is still false even though it is true that cats have four paws. The reason is because, well, the first part (All animals that have four paws are dogs) cannot stand as a truthful statement as a whole.

The implication does not come into play here as the statement is defamatory because the false thing said was an accusation of a crime (per say defimation) not that the person did move to another state (true). Whether it was intended as a statement of two facts that are not related to one another (he is a criminal and moved to another state) or implied causal (he is a criminal who moved to another state (implied flight from the law) the statement still contains the falsehood "he is a criminal". Lots of criminals move to other states for reasons unrelated to their crimes and lots of criminals move to other states for reasons related to their crimes... The problem is describing John as a criminal who moved to another state is lying about his legal status of not being a criminal (who moved to another state).

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