RI high court rejects restaurateur defamation case
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A talk show host for WPRO-AM who called a restaurant owner a ‘‘manipulative piece of garbage’’ did not defame him, the state Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Thursday.
The high court, which for the most part upheld a decision made by a lower court, also said a reporter for The Providence Journal did not engage in defamation when she wrote that Robert Burke, owner of the downtown restaurant Pot Au Feu, was behind a decision to close a political event to the news media, even if it wasn’t true.
A newspaper lawyer, Joseph Cavanagh, said he was ‘‘pleased but not surprised by the outcome.’’
‘‘Under the law, a claim based on that type of language is not viable,’’ he said.
WPRO’s general manager, Barbara Haynes, had no comment.
Burke and his business sued the newspaper, reporter Katherine Gregg, WPRO talk show host Dan Yorke and WPRO’s parent company at the time, Citadel Broadcasting Corp., alleging libel and slander. His business, which advertised on WPRO, also sued Citadel and Yorke alleging breach of contract.
The lawsuit followed a 2009 article about a lunch at Burke’s restaurant hosted by then-House Speaker William Murphy at which several politicians would be roasted. The lunch was designated as ‘‘off the record,’’ meaning the news media would not be allowed to write about what was said.
Gregg reported that Murphy and Burke had banned reporters from the event. But Burke said in his lawsuit that he told Gregg twice before the article was published that Murphy was the one responsible for the ban.
Following the article’s publication, Yorke engaged in what the court called a ‘‘rambling diatribe’’ in which he called Burke ‘‘stupid,’’ a ‘‘disgrace’’ and a ‘‘punk, mob-type actor.’’
The decision said the contents of the newspaper article could not reasonably have hurt Burke’s reputation. It also said that Yorke was expressing an opinion, based on a newspaper article, which has greater protection under the law.
The decision asked a lower court to reconsider one count of breach of contract against Citadel because of a procedural issue.
Burke said he was gratified the court ordered another hearing on the breach of contract claim.
‘‘They gave us the opportunity to redress this, and that’s what we want to do,’’ he said.