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Klayman v. Segal

October 18, 2001


Before Steadman, Schwelb and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Trial Judge)

Argued April 12, 2001

Appellant Larry Klayman challenges the trial court's dismissal, under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) (2000) (failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted), of his amended complaint alleging defamation and false light invasion of privacy against appellees (David Segal and The Washington Post). He filed a timely notice of appeal, contending that, contrary to the trial court's conclusion, a statement *fn1 in an October 25, 1999, article published in The Washington Post and written by Mr. Segal: (a) "is reasonably capable of being understood in a defamatory sense" because it "falsely caused [him] to appear so bent on publicity for himself that he is insensitive to the murder of innocent children. . . ."; and (b) places him in a false light that would be "offensive to any reasonable person." We hold, although it is a fairly close call, that when read in context, a reasonable person of ordinary intelligence would not understand the fair and natural meaning of the statement in question to be that Mr. Klayman is insensitive to the murder of innocent children. Thus, as a matter of law, the statement is neither reasonably capable of defamatory meaning, nor does it place Mr. Klayman in a highly offensive light.


Mr. Klayman, self-described as "the founder and General Counsel of a conservative pro-life ethics organization and public interest law firm, Judicial Watch, Inc.," *fn2 was the subject of a series of articles appearing in The Washington Post, entitled "Klayman's Chronicles." *fn3 In his amended complaint against Mr. Segal and The Washington Post, he alleged that the articles were "intended to ridicule, embarrass and defame [him] and hold [him] in a false light." In particular, he complained about an article appearing under Mr. Segal's byline on October 25, 1999, in the business section of the newspaper. The article, "Guess Who's on the Line," reads in full:

Ever wonder how Larry Klayman ends up on so many television talk shows? No question, he's a spigot of political opinions, and as chairman of Judicial Watch - - a nonprofit that has sued the Clinton administration more than a dozen times - - he knows how to fulminate about the commander in chief. Sometimes Klayman even brings his own videotape, lifted from recent depositions in his office. To producers, he's like a dinner guest who brings the meal, then cooks it.

But there's more in Klayman's television omnipresence than good soundbites. He's also a master, it turns out, at old-fashioned badgering. According to a former employee, Klayman demanded that his public relations person call a handful of talk show producers every single day, rain or shine, regardless of the day's news.

"He would come in each morning and ask, `Who have you called and why haven't you called?'" said the one[-]time employee, who requested anonymity. "If the show was doing Hollywood that night, he'd say call anyway. If they were doing Tiananmen Square he'd say, `Well, I'm an international lawyer, try to pitch that.' If there was a school shooting he'd say, `So what? We're doing important things here.'"

The nonstop barrage can get a little wearying for producers. "In his world, he wants the Klayman News Network," said one producer at a 24-hour news network. "His people call a few times a day. He wants to be on at 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock and 3 o'clock."

For anyone who can't wait for the next Klayman cameo, there's a growing line of Judicial Watch apparel, now for sale on the organization's web site. Products include the "JW Pinstripe Henley," a shirt that features a "100 percent cotton pinstripe body with contrast color collarette, placket and sleeves dyed to match buttons. White/Navy Sizes M- 2XL, $30.00[.]" There are also a JW "swat team" style windbreaker, poplin jacket, pique polo shirt; a couple of JW watches, and a mug and a paperweight.

During the hearing on the motion to dismiss his amended complaint, the trial judge asked Mr. Klayman to identify the section of the article that he contended was defamatory. He responded, in part:

[A]n article must be read in total context. . . . But the specific statement that pushes this thing over the top into the area of being defamatory is "if there was a school shooting he'd say[,] `[S]o what[?] [W]e're doing important things here[.] . . .'" That statement is totally one hundred percent false. I even submitted to a polygraph examination to show Your Honor that. . . . Larry Klayman and Judicial Watch are a public interest law firm that believes in ethics, Judeo Christian ethics, family values. . . . [T]his was a series called the Klayman Chronicles. . . . No lawyer that I know of has ever been subjected to a series which runs almost every two weeks and tries to make him ridiculous and odious and stupid in front of courts. . . . It is intended to try to make Larry Klayman look as if he's so bent on publicity he'll bring any lawsuit at any time and he doesn't even care about the death of innocent children because all he wants is publicity and to make money and to go on with his public interest law firm called Judicial Watch. That is defamatory particularly in the context that we are pro-life, we are pro-family, we represent groups such as Focus on the Family, . . . we represent the moral majority of Dr. Falwell. And it was intended to humiliate Larry Klayman, and to defame me to say I don't care about young children being killed.

Counsel for appellees disagreed with Mr. Klayman's interpretation of the article. He stated that, read in context, the article "means that Mr. Klayman tried to get on talk shows all the time, in the words of the column, regardless of the day's news because he regards his work as important." Asked to address Mr. Klayman's pro-family argument, counsel for appellees responded, in part:

It is completely unreasonable to read this column to mean that Mr. Klayman in his heart doesn't care whether innocent children are murdered. That's not what it says. What it says is in essence that he didn't regard a school shooting as a reason to suspend his activities. He didn't think it was a reason ...

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