Judge Tosses Coffee Shop’s Suit Against NY Times

By Joseph Ax | August 12, 2011

A Brooklyn judge has tossed out a defamation lawsuit against New York Times Co brought by Gorilla Coffee, a coffee shop that has become a fixture in the borough’s Park Slope neighborhood.

The suit stemmed from an April 2010 Times blog post covering a labor dispute between management and several employees that temporarily shuttered the independently owned coffee shop.

The post on the City Room blog included a statement from the workers, alleging that the owners had “created a perpetually malicious, hostile, and demeaning work environment.”

Gorilla Coffee’s owner Darleen Scherer and operations director Carol McLaughlin sued the Times and employees for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Opinion is protected speech under the First Amendment. But the lawsuit asserted that the workers’ words, while presented as opinion, implied that they were based on unspoken, defamatory facts, and could thus be construed as fact by the reader.

State Supreme Court Justice Wayne Saitta held that the employee’s statement was not defamatory because it was “too subjective and vague to be considered anything more than an opinion.”

“It is clear to a reasonable reader that the statement made by the workers is based on their perception of their work conditions, not based on an objective source of information,” the judge wrote. “On the other hand, had the workers made a statement which asserted that the working conditions were in violation of a safety code or labor regulations, a reasonable reader might perceive it as implying a factual basis.”

Saitta also noted that the Times had reported that the shop was involved in a labor dispute and provided statements from management, along with the employees’ statement.

Edward Finkelstein, the lawyer for Gorilla Coffee, said he was “disappointed” but declined to comment further. He said the coffee shop has not decided whether to appeal.

David McCraw, the attorney for the Times, said: “The basic argument we made, which I think is important, is that when a news organization covers a dispute that becomes public, it’s very important that we have the freedom to report what each side is saying about the other and make clear to the readers that there’s a dispute over the issues and the facts.”

“That’s all we did here,” he said.

The case is Gorilla Coffee v. The New York Times Company, New York State Supreme Court, No. 25520/2010. (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Edited by Noeleen Walder)

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