(CN) – Quoting Aesop’s fable “The Ass and the Purchaser,” a judge for the Michigan Court of Appeals wrote Tuesday that “a man is known by the company he keeps” in a decision finding that the Detroit News did not defame a radio host by calling him a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Detroit News Columnist Bankole Thompson wrote last year that white nationalist radio show host James Edwards is a “leader” of the KKK.
Edwards hosts a show called “The Political Cesspool,” and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke is a frequent guest. He states on the show’s website, “We represent a philosophy that is pro-white.”
Thompson’s article, “Jewish leaders fear Trump presidency,” appeared in the Detroit News in March 2016.
“Of particular note to some in the Jewish community is the unprecedented support the Trump campaign has received among white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and its leaders like James Edwards, David Duke and Thomas Robb, the national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas,” he wrote.
Edwards’ lawyer demanded a retraction, stating that Edwards “is not now, nor has he ever been, associated with the Ku Klux Klan – much less a leader of it,” according to court records.
The newspaper published a clarification that stated, “James Edwards, the Memphis-area host of the radio show ‘The Political Cesspool,’ has no formal position with the Ku Klux Klan.”
The Detroit News also modified the original quote online to remove the word “its” before “leaders.”
However, Edwards sued the paper and Thompson for defamation and invasion of privacy, arguing the clarification did not cure his injury.
The trial court ruled in the newspaper’s favor, finding that Thompson’s article was an opinion piece and that the word “leaders” is ambiguous.
Edwards appealed, but the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision Tuesday in an opinion written by Judge Brock Swartzle.
He noted that membership in the KKK is listed in Michigan tort law as a quintessential example of a defamatory statement.
“Considering the multiple meanings that ‘leader’ can have, we do not read the sentence to imply necessarily that Edwards must have held some official, designated leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan,” Swartzle wrote.
The judge continued, “Another interpretation could be that Edwards was an opinion leader, one with position and influence over those who have sympathies for the Klan or who are actual members of the Klan.”
Swartzle found that the First Amendment protects Thompson’s speech as well as that of Edwards, adding that Thompson’s statement is protected opinion because it is open to “several plausible interpretations rather than provably true or false.”
The judge also quoted one of Aesop’s fables, “The Ass and the Purchaser,” writing that “a man is known by the company he keeps.”
“[Edwards’] radio show and website are replete with references to ‘pro-white’ sentiments,” Swartzle explained. “Edwards himself has embraced those listeners who are interested in extreme forms of racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and nativism.”