After a forensic document examiner wrote an article on the evaluation of qualifications and credentials in his profession for a trade publication, the nonprofit credentialing organization that was mentioned in the article sued the author and the publisher of the publication for defamation. The nonprofit argued that the article was defamatory and also singled out one of its members for special criticism. The district court dismissed the case, finding that the article was not defamatory, as it contained only opinions. An appellate court ruled in favor of the author and publisher, finding that the article represented the opinions of the author and that it was not possible to read the article as containing assertions of fact subject to verification. The appellate court determined that the district court did not err in finding that the article was not defamatory, even though it found that the author of the article should have disclosed his relationship to the credentialing organization that he promoted in his article.
The Board of Forensic Document Examiners is a nonprofit organization that administers a certification program for forensic document examiners. Certified examiners analyze and compare handwriting and provide expert testimony in judicial proceedings. The Board has certified about a dozen examiners.
Thomas Vastrick is an examiner who was certified by a different, much larger organization: the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners. Vastrick wrote an article, titled, Forensic Handwriting Comparison Examination in the Courtroom, which appeared in The Judges’ Journal, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal published by the American Bar Association. Vastrick’s article offered guidance for judges in evaluating the qualifications and credentials of handwriting experts. Vastrick urged judges to look for examiners certified by the American Board and warned judges to be wary of other certifying bodies.
The Board eventually sued the ABA, alleging claims of defamation and invasion of privacy on behalf of all of its members generally and member Andrew Sulner specifically on the basis that he was singled out by Vastrick. The ABA moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the challenged statements did not identify the Board, or any of its members, as the target of criticism, and reflected only Vastrick’s opinion, not verifiable facts. The district court agreed and dismissed the Board’s complaint. The Board then appealed.
The appellate panel began by addressing the Board’s claim for defamation. The panel found that the context of Vastrick’s statements supported the district court’s conclusion that his article expressed his opinion, not verifiable facts. The panel stated that it was not possible to read the article and reasonably see Vastrick’s statements as assertions of fact subject to falsification. The panel stated that, while it agreed with the district court that Vastrick should have disclosed his relationship to the American Board in his article, none of his statements were defamatory. The panel found that, though the Board may disagree with Vastrick’s opinions, the proper avenue for doing so was in a rebuttal article in the journal, and not in a lawsuit. The panel, therefore, affirmed the decision of the district court.
You can view the decision here.
Our Schaumburg, IL libel and slander lawyers concentrate in this area of the law. We have defended or prosecuted a number of defamation and libel cases including cases representing a high profile athlete against a well known radio shock jock, a consumer sued by a large car dealer in federal court for negative internet reviews and videos, one of Loyola University’s largest contributors when the head basketball coach sued him for libel after he was fired, a lawyer who was falsely accused of committing fraud with the false allegation published to the Dean of the University of Illinois School of Law where the lawyer attended law school and the President of the University of Illinois.
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