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Landlords Lose Libel Suit Against School Paper

SEATTLE (CN) - A high school newspaper did not defame a pair of brothers in saying that they were accused of renting "slums" and having racist renting policies, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled.

Affirming a trial court's decision to dismiss the claim, a three-judge panel found that landlords Hugh and Drake Sisley numerous other newspaper articles had actually accused the men of being racist. The student journalist merely repeated those allegations, but did not call the Sisleys racist.

Sisley and his brother Drake Sisley filed separate suits against the Seattle School District in 2011 after the Roosevelt High School student newspaper published the article "Sisley Slums Cause Controversy: Developers and neighborhood clash over land use."

The story discussed properties owned by the brothers around the high school and claimed that "they have also been accused of racist renting policies."

After the Sisleys called the statement was defamatory, the school district submitted 11 articles previously published in local newspapers that referred to the brothers as "slumlords" and described the relationship they had to the founder of a white supremacist group.

The brothers claimed the articles were "irrelevant, unduly prejudicial, and inadmissible as hearsay."

Though the trial court dismissed the Sisleys' defamation claim, it did not explicitly rule on their motion in limine to exclude the articles.

In affirming the dismissal, the three-judge appeals panel found the stories submitted as evidence were relevant.

"The newspaper articles were relevant to multiple issues presented on summary judgment, including (1) whether the allegedly defamatory statement was false, (2) whether Seattle School District knew, or should have known in the exercise of reasonable care, that the statement was false, and (3) whether the Sisleys' reputations would not have been damaged but for the allegedly defamatory statement," Judge Stephen Dwyer wrote for the panel.

Evidence presented to the trial court also indicated that the brothers were previously accused of being racist landlords, which was at issue, not the truth of the accusations.

"Because the Sisleys did not present evidence sufficient to establish a genuine issue of fact regarding the element of falsity, the trial court properly dismissed the defamation claim," Dwyer wrote.

The unpublished opinion was filed on July 30, and an order granting publication was made on Oct. 15.

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