SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT
Oh, thank heaven for nosy, nasty neighbors. Because of them, we have a case that started out as a tree problem, and ended up as a neighbor law problem. And a dignatory tort, to boot. Forgive us, but we love this stuff.
Matters began between neighbors Joe Bouler and Linda McKeever Bullard when she claimed that he has trespassed on her land and cut down some trees. Things devolved from there. At one point, Joe was sure Linda was taking pictures of his wife – of the horror of it all! – and he complained to the cops. For good measure, he told the officer that Linda also had an anti-9/11 sign in the window.
The sign allegedly said, “9/11 F*** You.” Pretty caustic stuff, huh?
If the report was something Joe made up in order to inflame the passions of the police officer, it fell short. It was hard for a police officer to be too fired up when he couldn’t really tell what the sign meant.
Not literally. The literal meaning of the Queen Mother word was clear enough. But not the context, a distinction that Ms. Bullard belatedly appreciated when she sued her big-mouthed neighbor for slandering her to the police by accusing her of posting such a sign.
The court was puzzled, too. Did the sign indicate that Ms. Bullard was one of those conspiracy types? Maybe she figured America deserved to suffer 9/11. But maybe she meant to flip the bird (figuratively speaking) to Osama bin Laden. If so, she would hardly be the first person to use both the term “9/11” and the f-bomb together.
That was a problem, the Court said. You can’t be slandered unless you’ve been damaged. Some slander is so bad that damages are presumed. That is called “slander per se” under Georgia law (a term fairly common among the states). But slander per se must meet a strict definition, and one element is that it must be clear without resorting to extrinsic facts.
The problem, the Court said, is that the “9/11 F— you” sign wasn’t clearly pro-American, pro-Al Qaeda, pro-religious right, pro-wacko conspiracy, or pro-anything. Without more information, the sign didn’t suggest what — if anything — Ms. Bullard believed or was trying to convey. And because that information wasn’t a part of the sign she had allegedly put up, she had no case against her neighbor.
Bullard v. Bouler, 286 Ga.App. 218, 649 S.E.2d 311 (Ga.App. 2007). Linda McKeever Bullard and her neighbor, Joe Bouler, had quarreled previously in a trespass action in which she claimed Joe had caused trees to be cut down on her land. Bullard took pictures of the trees that had been cut down as evidence for the trespass suit.
Shortly thereafter, a Fulton County Police officer came to her door and asked to speak to her. The officer said Bouler had complained that she was taking pictures of Bouler’s wife in the Bouler’s backyard, and that he also had said Bullard had been posting signs in her window that said, “9/11, F- – – You.” Bullard testified that the police officer reported these allegations “with a look of utter contempt.” Bullard vehemently denied she had posted such signs.
The police officer confirmed that Bouler had made the allegation about the signs, and that she had denied it. Bullard sued, alleging that Bouler’s statement damaged her by accusing her “of a debasing act that may exclude her from all of American society,” an allegation which tracked OCGA §51-5-4(a)(2).
Following discovery, the trial court granted Bouler’s motion for summary judgment. It held that the words spoken were not slanderous because they were “an expression of pure opinion, which is neither provable as true nor as false.”
Held: The allegation Bouler made to the policeman was not slander. Bullard alleged a claim of slander or oral defamation under OCGA §51-5-4(a)(2), which defines one form of defamation as “charging a person … with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society.” For this form of defamation, damage is inferred, making this type of slander “slander per se.” In other words, malice is inferred from the character of the charge. In order to constitute slander per se, the words must be injurious on their face, extrinsic facts may not be considered, and the court may not rely on innuendo.
When words are defamatory per se, innuendo — which merely explains ambiguity where the precise meaning of terms used in the allegedly slanderous statement may require elucidation — is not needed. Here, the Court said, any slanderous meaning applicable to Bullard from a statement that she had posted a sign with the words “9-11 F— You” is not apparent in the plain meaning of Bouler’s statement. At most, the Court said, Bouler’s words mean that Linda Bullard was the type of person who would say to the public, “Nine-eleven, F— You.” But what the sign meant was ambiguous.
Bullard thought it meant Bouler was saying that she was the type of person who would disparage America’s loss on September 11, 2001 and that Bouler intended to inflame the police officer, a “first responder,” who might have taken offense at that thought. If that was what the words meant, Bouler’s words might very well constitute slander. But, the Court said, the words do not constitute slander per se here because what they really mean is not apparent from the plain meaning of the words.
In order to find the meaning, the viewer would have to rely on some extrinsic fact, and that takes the words out of the “slander per se” category.