Supreme Court upholds dismissal of Bob Burke’s defamation case against ProJo

Jul 5, 2012

In a victory for the Rhode Island media, the state Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a defamation case filed by Providence restaurateur Robert I. “Bob” Burke against the Providence Journal, ProJo Statehouse chief Katherine Gregg, WPRO talk-show host Dan Yorke and Citadel Broadcasting, the former owner of WPRO.

The case stems from an annual St. Patrick’s lunch hosted at Burke’s Federal Reserve restaurant by William Murphy, the then-Speaker of the Rhode Island House, in 2009. The restaurant has since become The Dorrance.

According to the court’s decision, Murphy informed the media back in 2009 “that, unlike previous years, any of the jokes, gags or punch lines would be ‘off the record.’ “

When Gregg called Burke to protest, the court decision says, ” Burke told her that it was Murphy — not he — who was responsible for the new restriction.” A subsequent item in the ProJo’s weekly Political Scene column reported that Murphy and Burke:

“banned reporters from disclosing what Murphy had to say at what was billed at the fourth-annual Murphy’s Law Luncheon . . .

” ‘One of the hoped-for side effects of the event is to lessen the polarization that has become rife in our politics[,]‘ Burke said in a recent exchange of e-mails. He said he imposed the off-the-record rule because he felt a former Journal columnist took a Murphy quip about homosexuals, at an earlier St. Patrick’s Day lunch, out of context . . .  creating an impression of an event that is mean-spirited.’ “

The Supreme Court says WPRO’s Dan Yorke read the ProJo’s story “and then launched into a crude and boorish tirade — or what Yorke characterized as ‘a little bit of a bender’ — that rallied against Burke and the ‘off the record’ rule. Among other things, Yorke said:

“That Bob Burke thinks he can control the First Amendment.

“You can kiss my Irish ass. You manipulative piece of garbage.

“. . . I wouldn’t buy a napkin from that guy for the rest of my life . . . “

In a decision written by Justice Francis Flaherty, the Supreme Court backed an earlier Superior Court finding that Gregg’s article and the ProJo’s publication of it were not defamatory, even if her attribution of the “off the record” rule to Burke was false or inaccurate.

According to the decision:

“Even if her statements were ‘slightly off the mark factually’ . . . . we cannot conceive of how these comments could reasonably be interpreted to have injuriously affected Burke’s reputation, degraded him in society, or brought him into public hatred and contempt.”

The court also upheld the lower court’s dismissal of defamation claims against Yorke and Citadel Broadcasting.

The court returned to Superior Court, for a motion to dismiss, a separate count alleging breach of contract against Citadel.

The decision by the Supreme Court says Chief Justice Paul Suttell and Justice William Robinson didn’t participate in it. 

The introduction to the court’s decision offers this note on talk radio:

“On occasion, tensions flare and these conversations deteriorate from moderate exchanges into heated free-for-all arguments: the tone can become caustic, the comments blunt, unrefined, and downright unfair . . . . We are reminded of the sage advice of the taciturn thirtieth president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge: ‘I have noticed that nothing that I never said ever did me any harm.’ “