BOSTON — A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a New Hampshire woman's lawsuit alleging a magazine libeled her by running a photo of her and others to accompany an article on sexuality headlined, "The Mating Habits of the Suburban High School Teenager."
In Stanton v. Metro Corp., the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor's March 2005 dismissal of Stacey Stanton's lawsuit against Metro Corp., publisher of Boston magazine.
Saylor had found that Stanton failed to demonstrate that the photo's publication in the May 2003 issue of the local monthly magazine could be considered defamatory under Massachusetts law.
But the three-judge panel disagreed and ordered the lower court to reconsider the Manchester, N.H., woman's complaint, possibly leading to a jury trial.
The appeals court ruled that Stanton's allegations "sufficiently state a defamation claim based on the theory that Metro negligently used Stanton's photograph to illustrate a story describing teenagers as sexually promiscuous without realizing that the publication might therefore be reasonably understood to mean that she was sexually promiscuous."
Robert Bertsche, an attorney representing Philadelphia-based Metro, said he was considering asking the full appeals court to review the panel's decision.
"We would argue we never made any statement that could be proved to be false," Bertsche said.
The magazine article suggested teenagers in the Boston area had become more sexually promiscuous over the previous decade. The story was illustrated with a photograph spread across a page and a half showing Stanton and four others at a high school dance. The five, three boys and two girls, were not identified.
Accompanying the article was a note in a small, italicized font saying the story's photos were from a photojournalist's "award-winning five-year project on teen sexuality." The note includes a disclaimer that "the individuals pictured are unrelated to the people or events described in this story," and says the names of teens interviewed for the story had been changed.
Stanton sued in Worcester Superior Court in January 2004, and the case was later moved to federal court, in part because it raises First Amendment questions.
Stanton alleged she did not participate in any teen-sexuality project as described in the article's disclaimer. Her lawsuit alleges the photo and its juxtaposition with the article invaded her privacy in violation of a state defamation law by implying that she took part in the sexual activities described in the story.
The magazine's publisher argued the article drew no literal connection between the teens in the photo and the story subject. However, the appeals court noted that, under state law, "a statement need not explicitly refer to the plaintiff to constitute defamation."
The appeals court found that Metro failed to prove there were no facts supporting Stanton's claim — the standard required to win dismissal.
Bertsche said the appeals court's ruling sends the message to news organizations that if they publish something that could be misconstrued, without ever having stated anything false, then they may be at risk of a lawsuit's going to trial.
"You worry about the chilling effect of a decision like this," he said.