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Hyperbole Isn't Defamation, Court Rules

March 01, 1998|From Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — A Virginia Tech administrator cannot collect damages from a student newspaper that gave her a crude, mocking job title, Virginia's Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The paper identified her as "Director of Butt-Licking."

In a 7-2 ruling, the court upheld the dismissal of Sharon Yeagle's $850,000 defamation suit against the Collegiate Times.

The high court said the offending phrase could not be taken seriously.

"The phrase is disgusting, offensive, and in extremely bad taste, but it cannot reasonably be understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle's job title or her conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude," Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy wrote.

Yeagle and her lawyer had no comment.

James R. Creekmore, attorney for the newspaper, said it marks the court's first recognition that "rhetorical hyperbole" does not amount to libel. He said rhetorical hyperbole is "colorful or figurative-type speech" whose words, "when taken in context, do not express that literal meaning."

The case stemmed from a 1996 article about the university sending students to a state honors program. A quotation from Yeagle in the text gave her correct title--assistant to the vice president for student affairs.

But a quotation that was lifted out of the text and set in large, bold-faced type identified her with the other phrase. The editors said the title got into the paper by accident.

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