Is it defamatory to call someone gay? If so, why? Via Romenesko, I found this story about a priest suing a newspaper over their lack of diligence in publishing a letter to the editor. The East Central Illinois News-Gazette has the story:
DANVILLE — The headmaster of a Catholic boarding school in Georgetown has filed a civil action against the Paxton Record, claiming the weekly newspaper defamed him when it published a letter to the editor in support of gay rights that erroneously identified him as the author. ...
The suit claims the Paxton Record didn't contact McMahon or the academy to confirm the letter's authenticity before running it on April 6, 2011, and representing to "its readership that a gay rights organization, headed by Father McMahon, was being run out of a Catholic boys boarding school." In addition to not writing the letter or leading the group, which the suit claims doesn't exist, it says the letter's views directly contradict McMahon's."The representation that Father McMahon, who is charged with the safety and spiritual growth of young Catholic men, was the leader of a sexually active, gay advocacy group headquartered at a Catholic boarding school imputes to him an inability to perform and want of integrity in the discharge of his duties as a Catholic priest and Headmaster," the suit says.
You know, this is why you confirm identities before running letters to the editor. So you don't claim that the headmaster of a very traditional Catholic boys' school is also "president of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Association of Vermilion County." What I found interesting, though, was the response the publisher John Foreman gave. He doesn't dispute McMahon's claim that McMahon didn't write the letter but says the suit is spurious:
"We don't believe that Father McMahon was defamed by a letter suggesting he was sympathetic to the societal problems faced by gay people. That's not defamatory," he said.
It's not clear from any of the stories I read whether the letter just suggests the priest is gay or leading a gay, bisexual and lesbian organization out of his boys' high school. Either way, the issue of him being presented as advocating views that are in contrast with his religious convictions does seem to be an injustice. But the paper disagrees. Wouldn't this be the view of leaders at many publications? That it's not defamatory to allege someone is gay or an activist for gay causes? In fact, it might be an honor. The publisher suggests that the priest's religious views mean he is not sympathetic to societal problems faced by his neighbors, which is quite a charge in itself.
The second example came when a Fox News talking blonde tweeted out a response to the news that abortion rights activist Sandra Fluke is engaged. Her response? "To a man?" Hardy har har har har. Oh my sides are splitting. OK, but is that something the media would consider rude or defamatory? In the prank of example one, we're told it's not defamatory to suggest that a Catholic priest leads a gay organization. In the so-called joke of the second example, many media figures weighed in that it was homophobic and bigoted. For instance, the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri wrote a piece headlined "Joel Ward, Monica Crowley and the Twitter cafeteria problem":
It’s getting harder to be a casual bigot.
Once, you could be a racist, homophobic, sexist jerk in the privacy of your own home.
And we get many words on how awful Crowley was to make her attempt at a joke. Crowley apologized for what Fluke called her "hate speech."
I'm in that rare camp of people who thinks both the prank and the joke were defamatory. I'm not entirely sure why someone who supports same-sex marriage would view a question about the sex of one's betrothed to be "hate speech," and media reports should explain that. I imagine, although I could be wrong, that it involves whether the person doing the prank or joke attempt has approved-of political views. But it seems a consistent standard should be called for. What do you think? Perhaps we could agree that the newspaper and the talking head should be more polite both to headmasters of boys' schools and newly engaged activists?