Justia Rhode Island Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Communications Law
The controversy at the center of this case arose from a newspaper article written by Defendant Katherine Gregg that sparked an "acrimonious and childish on-air rant" by Defendant Dan Yorke, a well-known radio talk show host, about Plaintiff Robert I. Burke, a local restaurateur. The article described an annual St. Patrick's Day lunch hosted by William Murphy, the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Rhode Island General Assembly, at one of Burke's restaurants. The lunch, a private event, was in large measure a "roast" of local public figures. In a story published by the Providence Journal, Gregg was openly critical of an "off the record" rule that allowed members of the media to attend the event, but banned them from disclosing the jokes made during the lunch. Her article attributed the creation and enforcement of the policy to both Burke and Murphy. Apparently incensed by the article, Yorke used his talk show as a platform to hurl a series of crude and disparaging remarks at Burke. Burke filed a complaint alleging various counts of libel and slander against Gregg, the Providence Journal Company, Yorke, and Citadel Broadcasting Corporation. Two other plaintiffs also joined in the action: BOEA, Inc. and the Food & Beverage Corporation. Food & Beverage Corp., which operated Burke's restaurant and is a parent corporation of BOEA, alleged its own counts of libel, slander, and interference with contractual relations against Yorke and Citadel. BOEA, the entity that operates Federal Reserve Special Events, alleged libel, slander, and breach of contract against Yorke and Citadel. All defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, and those motions were granted by a justice of the Superior Court. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court. "It is beyond question that Burke was justifiably offended by Yorke's . . . broadcast. Yorke's rambling diatribe would without a doubt ruffle the sensibilities of any listener at whom it was directed. Nevertheless, 'it is a prized American privilege to speak one's mind, although not always with perfect good taste * * *.' Therefore, his opinions unquestionably represented his interpretation of the facts presented in her article. Furthermore, as discussed above, even if Gregg's assertion that Burke was responsible for the 'off the record' rule was false or inaccurate, [the Court] concluded that as a matter of law it was not defamatory. Therefore, Yorke's comments were based on disclosed, non-defamatory facts, and [the Court] affirm[ed] the judgment of the Superior Court dismissing those claims." The Court vacated the decision pertaining to the breach of contract claim, and remanded the case for further proceedings on that issue. View "Burke v. Gregg" on Justia Law