321 P.3d 276 (Wash. Ct. App. 2014)
High school journalist Emily Shugerman wrote an article about slumlords for the March 2009 edition of The Roosevelt News. The article described the Sisley brothers, two landlords who owned a large amount of property near Roosevelt High School, as having “been accused of racist renting policies.” Hugh Sisley, one of the Sisley brothers, considered this statement defamatory and brought a claim to court against the school district.
At trial, the school district submitted as evidence eleven articles in professional publications linking the Sisley brothers to Keith Gilbert, the founder of a white supremacist organization who had been convicted of multiple racist hate crimes. Based primarily on this evidence, the trial court ruled in favor of Seattle School District, granting the school district’s motion for summary judgment. Sisley appealed.
The Court of Appeals of Washington affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that Sisley failed to prove the falsity of the paper’s accusation. In a defamation case, the burden falls on the plaintiff to prove that the statement is false. The statement didn’t need to be literally true for the school district to prevail, but only substantially true. In this case, the court found that the articles indicating a connection between Sisley’s activities and racist renting policies was enough to make substance of Shugerman’s statement true and not defamatory because Sisley had been accused of racist renting policies.