Wednesday, 13 January 2016 10:03
Founding member of the rock band “Boston,” Tom Scholtz, sued a newspaper and two of its columnists for libel alleging the newspaper published three stories in its entertainment news column, “Inside Track,” that wrongfully suggested he was responsible for former lead singer, Brad Delp’s suicide.
Scholtz also sued Delp’s former wife, Micki Delp, for providing several statements relied upon by the newspaper. The supreme court of Massachusetts held the stories contained protected opinion and the newspaper, its columnists, and Ms. Delp were entitled to speculate on Brad’s motives based on the known facts of his behavior.
Delp had a long history of anxiety and depression, relying on medication to help manage his stage fright. After the break-up of the original Boston band, Delp was caught in between a bitter falling out between Scholtz and the other three members of the band. Though Scholtz and the other former members of Boston never reconciled, Delp remained close to them all.
In 1996, after sixteen years of marriage, Delp divorced Micki Delp as a result of his mental health issues. Delp continued to tour with Scholtz under the name Boston for several years, eventually relying heavily on the vocals of a backup singer due to Delp’s age and increased difficulty in reaching the high notes for which Boston was known. However, just prior to Delp’s suicide on March 9, 2007, Scholtz rescinded the backup singer’s invitation to join an upcoming tour scheduled for that summer.
In March of 2007, the newspaper published two articles. The first article, titled, “Suicide confirmed in Delp’s death,” stated that Delp was “pulled from both sides by divided loyalties” and “the never-ending bitterness may have been too much for the sensitive singer to endure.” The article made reference to the fact that Scholtz was not invited to Delp’s private funeral service and quoted an “insider” as asking, “What does that tell you?”
The second article, titled, “Pal’s snub made Delp do it: Boston rocker’s ex-wife speaks,” stated that Scholtz’s dropping of the backup singer from the summer tour was “the last straw in a dysfunctional professional life that ultimately led to the sensitive frontman’s suicide.” The article included multiple statements from Micki Delp, discussing Delp’s need to please everyone, even though “he was in such a predicament professionally that no matter what he did, a friend of his would be hurt. Rather than hurt anyone else,” she told the newspaper, “he would hurt himself.”
The third article published by the newspaper on July 2, 2007, titled, “Delp tribute on,” stated Scholtz and the original members of the band “have been at odds for decades and the lingering bad feelings from the breakup of the original band more than 20 years ago reportedly drove singer Delp to take his own life in March.”
Opinion versus fact
The court explained that in order for a statement to be defamatory, it must be one of objectively verifiable fact rather than of opinion, since statements of pure opinion are constitutionally protected speech. In determining whether a statement could be understood as fact or opinion, The U.S. Supreme Court has provided factors to be considered, including the specific language used, including any cautionary terms, whether the statement was verifiable, and the overall context.
Speculation is not defamatory
The court noticed the articles used cautionary terms such as “may have” and “reportedly” often, suggesting to the reader the authors were indulging in speculation, which is often required when ascertaining the reason a person has committed suicide. The court also noted the articles were published in an entertainment news column and the most extreme language appeared in the headline, which a reasonable reader would expect to be dramatic in order to grab its attention.
Finally, the court recognized the authors and Ms. Delp laid out the bases for their conclusions and, as a result, held an opinion based on disclosed facts is not sufficient for a claim of defamation, no matter how unjustified or unreasonable the opinion may be or how derogatory it is.