Is calling someone gay defamatory?

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?

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  • Jay

    This is like calling for the application of rules of physics in a Kafka novel. Of course they’re not going to be consistent. If a female Unitarian pastor was erroneously attributed authorship of a letter to the editor expressing a comparably antithetical position (maybe Focus on the Family?), her being wronged and her right to sue would be totally unquestioned.

    My first instinct was to agree that both the prank and joke were wrong, but to think the prank was worse. That may be my own bias, but I think it’s justifiable. The prank imputed to the prankee a view of the pranker’s that was opposite that of the prankee. The joke imputed to the recipient something that, presumably, the recipient wouldn’t find objectionable, but was found objectionable because the joker, presumably, would find being lesbian objectionable. If Oprah Winfrey had tweeted the same question about Fluke, in seriousness, no doubt, after a moment’s pause, those condemning the question as hate speech now would instead marvel at what a sensitive and forward-thinking response that was to the news. So it goes.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    My only objection would be on the wider media issue of how the media has virtually standardized the liberal “talking point.” that uses the litany that Petri of the Washington Post used: “racist, homophobic, sexist.” For these 3 topics are 3 very distinct, separate issues that in key respects have no real connection–except for propaganda purposes.

  • Martha

    Defamatory to be “sympathetic to the societal problems faced by gay people”? No.

    Defamatory to claim that so-and-so is “the leader of a sexually active, gay advocacy group” (please note the important caveat: sexually active) when so-and-so is the headmaster of a boys’ boarding school and a Roman Catholic priest to boot? Yes, there may be some problems there.

    Granted, I’m sure newspapers don’t check every single letter to make sure that “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” really does live in Tunbridge Wells, but when a letter comes in ostensibly from someone claiming to be in a position of responsibility in a certain organisation and that letter sets out a position contrary to the public policy statements of that organisation, a tiny bit of checking woouldn’t go astray.

    I mean, if they got a letter supposedly from their local Republican party congressman stating that this time round he’s going to tell everyone to vote for the Democratic party candidate, wouldn’t the paper ring up Representative Ricky Richardson to find out why he is taking this tack? After all, it could make a story!

  • carl jacobs

    Defamation defined:

    Any intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person’s reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against a person.

    If you assume that the letter would be potentially injurious to this man because of his position as the head of a Catholic school, then the newspaper’s position amounts to “The people who would thing badly of him because of this letter don’t matter in a legal sense.” It is almost a ‘reasonable man’ test where the reasonable man is presumed to support homosexual normalization. Is this simply the newspaper protecting itself from a lawsuit, or is this really the standard?


  • carl jacobs

    Gaaah! “THINK badly”

    Why do you never see these things until AFTER you press ‘submit?’


  • Mollie

    Actually, Martha, every newspaper I’ve worked out — from the podunk ones to the big ones — does work to confirm that letter writers are who they claim to be. It would still be possible to prank, but one of my first jobs involved checking phone numbers and addresses from people writing letters to the editor. And that was always more important if a letter came from someone who was a leader of an organization or well known for some reason or another. I’ve also written letters to the editor of newspapers and always had editors confirm I was who I said I was.

    It was my assumption that this was standard practice. I could be wrong.

  • Jeff

    “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?”

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as a famous Northeastern liberal said.

    And what is bad enough for Emerson is surely bad enough for the MSM.

  • Mollie

    Here’s a good question. Is it OK to bully children by, among other things, calling them pansies? Is it OK to do it if you’re an adult who’s speaking at a kids’ journalism conference about how much you dislike the Bible?

  • Stan

    Courts in this country have within the last decade ruled that calling someone gay is NOT libelous. (Earlier rulings had said that it was.) Misrepresenting someone as saying something that he or she did not say is something altogether different and Fr. McMahan may have some cause of action not because he was called gay but because the newspaper negligently attributed to him views that he does not hold. He would, however, have to prove that he had been damaged by the attribution; the newspaper could say that they had rectified the damage by issuing a correction. As far as I know, no one has threatened to sue Monica Crowley for her slur against Sandra Fluke. To call Crowley a casual bigot is simply stating the obvious, and she has no grounds to sue anyone either.

  • Stan

    A question: how do you know Crowley was FORCED to apologize for her slur? Who forced her?

  • Mollie


    You’re absolutely right. I don’t know and it’s rude of me to suggest that her apology wasn’t heartfelt. Unintentional and just sloppy wording but rude none-the-less. I’ll fix it.

  • Susan

    I don’t see how the fake letter could not defamatory against the priest. If a fake letter saying the president of Kellogs’ company led a spouse-swapping club or one-night stand club, the president would suffer professional and personal repercussions/damages to his reputation. Whether the Twitter joke fits a legal question of defamation, I do not know, but it doesn’t seem to fit hate speech.

  • carl jacobs


    A retraction is a weak solution. It does not compensate for the stress and distress generated before the retraction is issued. Neither is there any guarantee that people will see the retraction. Newspapers after all do not generally put glaring spotlights on their mistakes. Perhaps if they put it on page 1 above the fold and in large font. yeah, that will happen….


  • Ira Rifkin

    “…when a Fox talking blonde…”

    Certainly not libelous, but gratuitous and even derogatory?

    Ah, the glass houses proliferate exponentially.

  • Mollie

    Ira Rifkin,
    Though I’m certainly in that glass house, I was trying to make a reference to Roger Ailes’ speech to journalism students last week.

  • Bill

    Carl Jacobs is correct: a retraction doesn’t remove the thought placed in people’s minds. Fr. McMahan’s reputation has been tarnished. As the late Paul Harvey put it, “You can’t unring a bell.”

    Better to be careful in the first place.

  • Martha

    Mollie, I’m relieved to know that checking Mrs.Jones of No. 17 Larchville Estate really does exist and wrote the letter attributed to her goes on in newspapers, which makes this even odder.

    Either the “Paxton Record” has no idea what the official Roman Catholic position on sexually active same-sex relationships is (doubtful?) or they preferred to believe that ‘Fr. McMahon’ was who he said he was and held the views attributed to him in the letter (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on their motives, since if the CDF can censure the LCWR for being wibbly on church teaching, it would be perfectly possible for non-Catholics to think this was just a liberal priest to go along with the liberal nuns acting as escorts for abortion clinics and the like).

    What makes this even more interesting is the information I found when trying to Google the actual text of the letter printed in the “Paxton Record” (I was curious to know what it said, apart from alleging that Fr. McMahon was the president of a gay/lesbian/bisexual activist group) and – if Smile Politely (“Champaign-Urbana’s Online Magazine”) is to be believed – there’s another layer to this whole story; Fr. McMahon is alleged to be a member of the Society of St. Pius X (and by the writer’s lights, this means he isn’t really a Catholic priest).

    The position regarding SSPX ordinations is a bit more fraught than that, but if this case does go to court, it would be fascinating to see if the paper’s defence includes ‘there was no defamation to your character as a Catholic priest because you’re not a Catholic priest’. (Also, would the Champaign-Urbana online columnist consider a Roman Catholic WomanPriest to be a Catholic priest or not? But that’s a different question).

  • Joseph

    Well, of course calling someone gay is an insult. I learned that in junior high. Crowley was behaving very juvenile.

    I think you go too far in your blog post calling Fluke an “abortion activist.” Maybe she is, but from what I’ve read in the news has been relegated mostly towards contraception and the details of how it should be covered by employers and insurance providers.

  • Brady Shackelford

    The fake letter to the editor was a deliberate attempt to defame Father McMahon, while Crowley’s comment was a bad attempt at humor.

  • Julia

    Is calling someone Jewish defamatory?
    Google is sued in French court for calling the Murdochs and others,like Jon Hamm, Jewish.