Catholic school's headmaster sues paper for libel

Catholic school's headmaster sues paper for libel

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 lawsuit, brought by the Rev. Michael McMahon of the Notre Dame de La Salette Boys Academy and filed in Vermilion County Circuit Court this month, also names The News-Gazette Inc., which publishes the Paxton paper, as a defendant. It seeks in excess of $50,000 in damages for each of its four counts. Paxton is in Ford County and is about 30 miles north of Champaign.

"We feel it's a very clear case of defamation per se, and that we don't need to prove any damages, although we will," said McMahon's attorney, John P. Lynch Jr. of Cremer, Spina, Shaughnessy, Jansen & Seigert LLC of Chicago.

News-Gazette Publisher John Foreman said no one disputes McMahon's contention that he didn't write the letter, published in April 2011. He also said the Paxton Record ran a correction and apology "prominently" in a following edition.

However, Foreman called the suit "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.

The letter purports to be from a Michael McMahon who is identified as president of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Association of Vermilion County, which lists the academy's address and phone number as its own.

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.

The suit also claims the "negligent" and "reckless" publication of the "false" and "defamatory" statements damaged McMahon's reputation, caused him to suffer emotional distress and mental pain and "great concern and anxiety over his reputation" and reputations of the academy and its students.

Karen Conti, an attorney and adjunct professor who teaches media law at the University of Illinois and DePaul University law colleges and Columbia College, said such complaints are difficult to prove.

"The law does not like defamation because the law favors free speech," said Conti of Adamski & Conti LLC in Chicago. She said plaintiffs must prove the defendants made false statements against them in a reckless and malicious manner and that the plaintiff suffered damage.

"There are certain types of statements that Illinois law recognizes as being so harmful to a person's reputation that you don't have to prove you were damaged at all," she said, referring to defamation per se cases.

"The question will be were the statements harmful to a Catholic priest to where they would require or wouldn't require the showing of damages."

Sections (2):News, Local
Location (3):Local, Paxton, Ford County

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Sid Saltfork wrote on April 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm

It seems clear that a false story stating a Catholic priest who is headmaster at a boys school supports gay rights is harmful.   Trying to save money by hiding behind a weak interpretation of the law does not seem to the right way to handle this.  Poor journalism is evident.  Pay the damages; and move on.  Money grubbing will not make this problem go away.  Pay off; and fire the reporter. 

xb wrote on April 21, 2012 at 9:04 pm

There is no story, journalism, or reporter.  It was a letter to the editor.

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 22, 2012 at 9:04 am

Which was not verified before printing it.  If the letter was allegedly from Michael Hogan, it would have been verified prior to printing it.  So a letter allegedly from a Catholic priest in charge of a boarding school supporting a supposedly gay organization doesn't need verification?  With the past news stories involving Catholic priests, this "letter to the editor" is sensational in the area that the paper covers.  Has journalism come to the Face Book Age?  A small back page retraction which very few people read is supposed to clear the matter up?  Now, a bigger story appears to defend the paper in court.  It was shoddy work.  It should not have to go to court.  Pay the damages; and do some work before printing fiction, and damaging a faith.  

wayward wrote on April 22, 2012 at 10:04 am

Maybe a bit sloppy of them not to verify the letter before printing it, but a determined activist could have used a throwaway prepaid phone to get past a phone check.  I'm guessing the Paxton Record/N-G was an unwitting participant in a stunt against an unpopular group.

Jim A wrote on April 24, 2012 at 9:04 pm

If the letter to the editor identified Father McMahon as a priest, and/or as headmaster of Notre Dame de La Salette -- or if it stated outright that that the fictitious gay rights organization was based at the school, the paper could be in big trouble. Those claims certainly should have triggered skepticism.

But if, as it sounded to me as I read the article, all that linked the letter to the school was a phone number and a "Michael McMahon" signature, the case seems much weaker (though by no means nontrivial).

It's interesting to me that speculation seems to be leaning toward some kind of political activism here. Since the man is the headmaster of a high school, my first thought was that this juvenile prank probably sprang from his students. Is there any political context -- e.g. pending gay-rights legislation McMahon has spoken out against, concerns over gay students at the school, etc. -- that would make Father McMahon an obvious target for a protest action? If not, why assume activists have it in for him?