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It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but six people in Michigan are finding out that it can mean much more than that.
The publication of a photo has led to a defamation lawsuit by an unexpected source, and a court battle that will look to define individual’s freedom of speech.
On February 11, 2012, the Ionia Sentinel-Standard – a smaller print publication that serves the people of Ionia County – released a story of a drug bust that occurred at a local farmhouse.
The story states authorities found methamphetamine and other drug related objects, while making four arrests and removing three children from the scene.
A picture, taken two years prior to the drug bust at the same farmhouse, was placed on the paper’s website. Kristy Cuttle, who was arrested in the drug bust and has since been placed on probation, was shown with four others at a fundraiser for then gubernatorial candidate Rick Synder and a handful of additional Republican candidates.
The other four people in the picture were Paul and Ann Bowering, Mary Seidelman and Mike Cuttle.
Feeling outraged her likeness was tied to the bust, Seidelman called the general manager of the paper and the Michigan Regional Editor for GateHouse Media, Inc., Lori Kilchermann, to question the use of the photo two days after the original publication.
On February 16, Seidelman, Ken Thompson and Darlene Thompson visited the office of Kilchermann to discuss the picture. According to a complaint filed with the Ionia County Circuit Court, Kilchermann said she decided to use the photo after multiple community members contacted the paper advising them of the connection and that the history of the land made it newsworthy.
Sometime within the meeting, Ken Thompson and Seidelman accused Kilchermann of using “yellow journalism,” which is a reference to the use of sensationalism or crude exaggeration. Following the meeting, the picture was taken down from the website.
A little over a week after the meeting, a letter was sent to executives at GateHouse Media, which again made references to Kilchermann using “yellow journalism” techniques. In a court affidavit signed by Kilchermann, she states that she was placed under investigation by GateHouse Media following the letter.
A post written by Ken Thompson in August of 2012 appeared on the Ionia County Republican Facebook page urging people to support other regional newspapers that are based in facts, and don’t practice yellow journalism. A second post to the same page appeared in December by Darlene Thompson that was critical of an unnamed paper that practices yellow journalism and that ties a Republican fundraiser to a drug bust, even though the event happened two years before the bust. Both comments have since been removed from the Facebook page.
A lawsuit was originally filed in November of 2012 by Kilchermann against Ken Thompson, Mary and Philip Seidelman and Paul and Loretta Bowering. The suit charges the defendants with defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and tortious interference with a contractor or advantageous business relationship. An amendment was made on April 15, 2013 to include Darlene Thompson to the list of defendants following her post on Facebook.
In court filings, Kilchermann states she has suffered harm to her professional reputation along with mental and emotional distress. She is seeking damages of $25,000, plus attorney fees.
The case represents a bit of an oddity as it is uncommon for an editor to take action against a subscriber. The lawsuit also presents multiple challenges. In order to successfully prove defamation, Kilchermann will need to prove she isn’t a “public figure” according to the traditional legal definition. The judge will also need to decide if the defendant’s claims of sensational journalism are their Constitutional rights, protected by the First Amendment.
At the heart of the case lies a picture and the decision by a newspaper editor to include mention of a political event that happened two years prior to the more recent drug bust.
Kilchermann resigned as regional editor in February and now acts as the General Manager of Content for the Ionia Sentinel-Standard.
This case will get its first hearing, scheduled for July, 17 at 3:30 p.m. at the Ionia County Courthouse.
Tags: defamation lawsuit, GateHouse Media, ionia sentinel-standard, yellow journalism
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