Seattle landlord failed to prove high school paper libeled him, appeals court rules

WASHINGTON — ASeattle landlord did not prove the Roosevelt High School student newspaperdefamed him, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

Hugh Sisley and his wife filed a defamation suit against theSeattle School District after a story titled “Sisley Slums Cause Controversy:Developers and neighborhood clash over land use” was published in the March2009 issue of The Roosevelt Times.

The Sisleys claim the paper libeled them by writing thatSisley and his brother “have been accused of racist renting policies.”

A trial court judge sided with the school district in 2011,ruling not only that the Sisleys were unable to meet their burden to prove thestatement false, but also that the school district was legally prohibited fromstopping the story because of student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

The Washington Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed thatruling. It held that the Sisleys failed to sufficiently prove the story false,but did not address the issue of whether the school is liable for student speech.

“We need not address the other bases for dismissal in orderto resolve this case and, therefore, do not do so,” Judge Stephen Dwyer wrote for a unanimousthree-judge panel.

The court ruled that the Sisleys had to provide more than a“bare allegation of falsity” to prove that the statement and the “gist” of thearticle was false.

“[I]t is the ‘sting’ of the allegedly defamatory statement,not its literal truth, that is at issue,” Dwyer wrote.

At the trial court level, 11 articles from outsidepublications and Sisley’s deposition regarding those articles were admitted asevidence. The Sisleys argued those stories should never have been considered.

“They assert that this evidence is irrelevant, undulyprejudicial and inadmissible as hearsay,” Dwyer wrote. “We disagree.”

The newspaper stories referred to the Sisley brothers as“slumlords” and claimed their property manager was a white supremacist“convicted of multiple racist hate crimes,” according to the court’s decision.

School district attorney Jeffrey Freimund said that whilethe decision went in the district’s favor, he wished the court would haveaddressed some of the broader issues, including student free speech and whetherthe school is liable for its students’ actions.

He said he understood, though, that courts generally don’t addressconstitutional issues unless they have to.

Jeffrey Grant, Sisley’s attorney, said that he wasdisappointed with the ruling. He said the court looked at the gist of thearticle, not what it actually said.

The paper accused the Sisley brothers of racist rentingpolicies, which isn’t true, Grant said.

The Sisleys have 30 days to ask the Washington Supreme Courtto hear the case, and Grant said his clients are looking at appealing.

“I think it’s probably safe to say that wehaven’t completely given up,” Grant said.

Monday’s decision is an unpublished opinion,meaning it can’t be cited in future cases as binding legal precedent.

Sisley’s brother, Drake, filed a separatelibel suit over the same story. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Aug. 17in King County Superior Court.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer