I don’t know what is so hard to grasp about the concept of defamation. The idea is that one must not assert as fact something about a person that is demonstrably false and that holds that person up to public ridicule or hostility, harming their reputation. It is easily distinguishable from opinion: it must be published “with fault,” meaning as a result of negligence (asserting a “fact” without checking that it is true) or malice (with the intent of harming someone’s reputation). Why is that difficult? I don’t know. This guy, however, really doesn’t understand defamation, and he was a radio talk show host. That’s like not understanding snakes and becoming a snake charmer. Yes, the ethics value being missed here is competence.
New Hampshire radio talk show host Michael Gill (above) used billboards, his website and his radio show called “State of Corruption Radio” to call local businessmen, among other things, heroin dealers. A typical broadcasts included quotes like this:
“Now I told you, and I’ve been telling you, the heroin dealers are in this state are Anagnost and Crews. Now who are these people? Well a couple of the wealthiest men in our state. That’s how they got wealthy, okay? They have a warehouse. I brought this up. We had witnesses, distributing and unloading drugs and machine guns from trucks.”
Wait, what? Didn’t this guy have a lawyer? Didn’t the station have a lawyer? Any lawyer within hearing distance of a broadcast like that had a duty to rush to the station, break into the studio, and stuff a wadded up sock in Gill’s mouth.
In one broadcast, Gill appeared to be daring his victims to sue him:
“I accused Anagnost and Crews, and Greiner by the way, of being drug dealers . . . They’re fine citizens, you know, Anagnost and Crews, right. You didn’t hear Anagnost and Crews one time saying they weren’t drug dealers now did you? Because I didn’t hear that. In fact, if you go on to read it, they both say they don’t want to sue me. Really. I’d sue you. And you’d sue me back, wouldn’t you. But why aren’t they. Because it is the truth, and you know it’s the truth.”
But they weren’t drug dealers, and Gill had no evidence that they were drug dealers. Making a public statement that a law-abiding citizen is a criminal is such a classic example of defamation that it’s almost unheard of, because nobody is stupid enough to do that, especially with the speed of social media to contend with. Why didn’t they sue him immediately? There are lots of possible reasons, one of them being that they really were drug dealers, but far from the only one. Another more likely one is that it seemed easier and cheaper to just ignore this jerk, and assume that nobody took him seriously. Making outrageous accusations and using the fact that you haven’t been sued as evidence that they are true is like playing Russian Roulette.
Well, Gill’s victims finally did sue for libel and slander. Several of the plaintiffs and their families have helped fund and manage a nonprofit drug and alcohol addiction recovery center, something heroin dealers tend not to get involved with. The jury came back with a record-breaking $274 million verdict against Michael Gill, ten times greater than the previous New Hampshire record for a personal injury claim.