The Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals recently dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by a private citizen against the mayor of Yonkers, New York. Zherka v. Amicone, 2011 WL 710462 (2d Cir. 2011).
Selim Zherka, a citizen of Westchester County, New York, publishes the Westchester Guardian, a weekly local newspaper. In 2007, the Guardian was highly critical of Philip Amicone, the Mayor of Yonkers, accusing him and his administration of corruption, fiscal mismanagement and police brutality. Zherka claimed in his lawsuit that Amicone retaliated against him for making those accusations by publicly defaming him at a campaign event. According to Zherka, Amicone called him a “convicted drug dealer,” an “Albanian monster” and a “thug.” Amicone also said that Zherka would open “drug dens” and “strip clubs” throughout Yonkers and “loot” the “pension funds” of Yonkers’s residents if Amicone was not re-elected Mayor of Yonkers.
Zherka sued Amicone in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York for violation of his First Amendment rights and per se defamation under New York common law. Amicone admitted being present at the campaign event, but denied making any of the statements. Amicone moved to dismiss Zherka’s lawsuit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court granted Amicone’s motion and dismissed Zherka’s First Amendment claim with prejudice and dismissed his defamation claim under New York common law without prejudice. Zherka appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling and upheld the dismissal of Zherka’s First Amendment claim and his common law defamation claim. The Court reasoned that Zherka could not establish that Amicone’s retaliatory comments “chilled” his speech in any way – that is, that they caused Zherka to refrain from speaking – which is required to establish a First Amendment violation under 42 U.S.C.A. §1983. Id. at *2.
Zherka argued that the injury presumed as a result of his claim of per se defamation under New York common law was sufficient to establish an injury under §1983. The Court disagreed, reasoning that Zherka’s alleged injury under New York common law was insufficient to serve as a substitute for the actual “chilling” of speech. In fact, the Court found that Amicone’s comments seemed to influence Zherka to speak, rather than chill his speech. For example, following Amicone’s comments Zherka published articles critical of Amicone with headlines such as “Mayor Amicone Stumbles Over the First Amendment,” “Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest,” and “Scrooge Amicone-Rapes Taxpayers; Rewards Cronies.” Id. at *2.
Thus, the Court held that Zherka could not establish an injury sufficient to prove a violation of §1983. In conclusion, the Court stated:
Retaliatory insults or accusations may wound one’s soul, but by themselves they fail to cross the threshold of measurable harm required to move government response to public complaint from the forum of free speech into federal court.
The arena of political discourse can at time be rough and tough. Public officials must expect that their decisions will be subjected to withering scrutiny from the populace. A public official’s response to that criticism is subject to limits, but the injury inflicted by that response must be real. Without that limitation, the Constitution would change from the guarantor of free speech to the silencer of public debate.
Id. at *3.
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