Racial divisions are building in the last couple of years. White right activists are becoming more active. If we accuse someone supporting discriminatory policies of being a white supremacist, have we defamed that person? In Tennessee, Lisa Rung heard Robert Weidlich speak against LGBT persons at a school forum. Upon leaving the building, she saw Mr. Weidlich’s car and noted bumper stickers espousing a group known as the League of the South, considered by some to be a Neo-Confederate group of some sort, and a Confederate Battle flag. Mr. Rung posted a picture of the Weidlich car with the bumper stickers on her Facebook page and said, “The Fisty Family (a pejorative nickname for the Weidlich’s) are white supremacists.”
Mr. Weidlich sued Lisa Rung for defamation in state district court and won. The court awarded $12,000. Mr. Weidlich could point to a customer he lost, which cost him lost profits of $7,000. He has a car repair shop. Mr. Rung appealed. And, he claimed $5,000 in attorney’s fees. Ms. Rung appealed.
The Tennessee court of appeals looked carefully at Ms. Rung’s post. The court noted correctly that a statement of fact, stating for example, that Weidlich is a white supremacist would be defamatory. But, in this particular situation, she did not simply state he was a white supremacist. She also posted a picture of his bumper showing the stickers. In effect, said the court, Ms. Rung was expressing an opinion that Weidlich was a white supremacist. A statement of opinion is not a statement of fact. She was expressing her opinion and with the picture, she was inviting her Facebook friends to agree or not. See the decision here. So, the court found the statement was not defamatory, because she was simply expressing her opinion.
It is a remarkable decision. The law in most states is that a statement of opinion is not slanderous. But, a statement of fact would be defamatory.
Notice too that the court did not find that espousing an organization that might be racist and displaying a flag that might be used by some white supremacist groups did not necessarily indicate Weidlich was a white supremacist. The judge did not find that mere display of questionable symbols does not in itself support the accuracy of the accusation. Truth is always a defense to an accusation of defamation. But, the court did not find that display of problematic symbols would in itself show the alleged truth of the slanderous statement.
But, still, I would recommend most people refrain from accusing other persons of being racists or white supremacists. It is exceedingly difficult to truly know what is inside someone’s head, or their heart.