Panel Finds Boeheim's Comments Not Defamatory
Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim did not defame two men by calling them liars after they accused assistant coach Bernie Fine of molesting them as youths, a divided state appeals court decided.
A 3-2 majority of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department panel concluded Friday in Davis v. Boeheim, 13-00451, that Boeheim's comments, when viewed overall, represented opinion and not actionable statements of fact.
Boeheim's statements were quoted by ESPN, The New York Times and the Syracuse Post-Standard in its web edition. They portrayed plaintiffs Robert Davis and Michael Lang as "lying" and telling a "thousand lies" and of seeking a hefty monetary settlement. The panel noted that the accusations came in 2011 just after football coach Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State in a child sex abuse-related scandal. The court also said Fine was a old friend of Boeheim's and that Fine's accusers implied that Boeheim should have prevented Fine's alleged abuse.
"Based upon 'the content of the communication[s], as a whole, as well as [their] tone and apparent purpose [together with] the overall context in which the assertions were made,' we thus conclude that the court properly determined that defendant's statements constitute opinion, not fact," the panel said in an unsigned ruling, quoting Mann v. Abel, 10 NY3d 271 (2008).
In dissent, Justices Nancy Smith (See Profile) and Eugene Fahey (See Profile) said the objected-to statements constitute "mixed opinion" grounded in both opinion and fact. As such, the dissenters wrote, they would overrule Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice Brian DeJoseph's order dismissing the defamation suit and reinstate the action.
Mariann Meier Wang of Cuti Hecker Wang, the plaintiffs' attorney, said she intended to seek an appeal.
Helen Cantwell of Debevoise & Plimpton was lead attorney for Boeheim and Syracuse University.