CINCINNATI (CN) – A New York Times article that included allegations of misconduct against an Ohio State University cancer researcher may have been unflattering but it was not defamatory, the Sixth Circuit ruled Wednesday.
The Cincinnati-based appeals court upheld a lower court decision that found the Times and journalist James Glanz did not defame Dr. Carlo Croce when Glanz wrote a piece that included allegations of misconduct made by fellow researchers.
A large chunk of Glanz’s article hit Croce for his work in the 1990s as an adviser to the Council for Tobacco Research, which the story said was created by tobacco companies to fight the public perception that smoking caused cancer.
The piece, published in March 2017, also claimed the university cleared him of wrongdoing on several occasions so that it would continue to receive lucrative research grants.
The case was argued before the appeals court panel less than a month ago.
U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Moore wrote the court’s opinion, and began with an explanation of Ohio’s defamation law.
“Ohio has adopted a ‘reasonable reader’ standard,” she wrote. “If a reasonable reader, reading a statement in the context of the entire publication, would interpret the statement as defamatory, then the plaintiff has an actionable claim.”
Moore then applied this standard to Croce’s claims, the most notable of which involved the headline of the article, which included the phrase “gets a pass” in reference to Croce’s escaping any punishment at the hands of Ohio State University.
“On one hand,” the judge wrote, “the implication of this phrase could be that Dr. Croce did not get the punishment he deserved for his alleged scientific misconduct; on the other hand, the phrase could cast the university in a negative light because the implication might be that OSU is responsible for not pursuing a vigorous enough investigation.” (Emphasis in original.)
She added, “The latter reading is arguable bolstered by the text immediately following the title: ‘Dr. Carlo Croce was repeatedly cleared by Ohio State University, which reaped millions from his grants.’”
Moore reiterated that, under Ohio law, a headline – or any other sentence – cannot be read in isolation to determine whether it is defamatory.
“In full context, a reasonable reader would interpret the article as a standard piece of investigative journalism,” the ruling states.
Moore pointed out that the article is not “entirely unfavorable,” and includes a statement that Croce has never been found to have committed misconduct, as well as a complimentary statement about his research made by a colleague.
Croce also argued that as long as any reasonable reader could attribute a defamatory meaning to the article, the Sixth Circuit would have to reverse the lower court’s ruling, but the panel disagreed and cited the “innocent construction” rule.
“Even if the meaning of the article is ambiguous or debatable, an innocent reading can surely be adopted,” Moore wrote. “Yes, Dr. Croce has been the subject of criticism and allegations, resulting in some corrections to his work, but no findings of deliberate misconduct have been made against him, he denies these allegations, and he is otherwise a successful cancer researcher.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Deborah Cook and John Nalbandian also sat on the panel, joining Moore in her opinion.