IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) - A lawsuit filed by the editor of a local paper against readers who were critical of a news story has been dismissed.
On Friday, Ionia County Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Hoseth-Kreeger dismissed the lawsuit filed by Lori Kilchermann, the editor of the Ionia County Sentinel-Standard.
Last November, Kilchermann sued a group of six people who had voiced complaints about a story that ran in the paper. Those complaints were made online and in a letter to Kilchermann's bosses.
Kilchermann sued the group, claiming defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and tortious interference with a contract or advantageous business relationship.
The story ran on Feb. 11, 2012 with the headline "Meth Labs Seized." A sub-headline read "Location was host to 2010 Republican rally." The defendants in the lawsuit said the original article included a photo from the rally showing a number of residents who were in no way connected to the meth lab bust.
The group took their complaints to Kilchermann. They said Kilchermann agreed to remove the picture, but they were not satisfied, so they wrote a letter to Michael Reed, the CEO of Gatehouse Media, which is the parent company of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard.
The letter said, in part:
"It is a sad state of journalistic style, wherein the Editor of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard Lori Kilchermann encourages her news reporter to turn the Story of a local widowed mother who was consumed by the use and production of Methamphetamine as a soapbox to promote her apparent biased opinion masquerading as objective fact. Listed as a "related" story, is a fundraiser that took place nearly two years ago, there is NO relation between the two events, whatsoever."
"Lori Kilchermann used the photos of this political fundraiser which had no relation to the incident regarding the renter Kristy Cuttle, as an avenue to smear our Governor and our community," the letter said.
"This is 'Yellow Journalism' at its worst. This 'yellow journalism' has left many appalled, shaken, and outraged in our Ionia County farming community by inferring there is a correlation between a fundraiser and a meth lab.”
The letter also called Kilchermann a “petty bureaucrat” and said she was “an unprofessional representation” of the Gatehouse Media corporate family.
The letter was signed by Kenneth Thompson, who said it came with the support of the other defendants, Mary and Phil Seidelman and Paul and Ann Bowering. A sixth defendant, Darlene Thompson, was added to the lawsuit after she joined the critics and posted messages on Facebook accusing Kilchermann and the newspaper of yellow journalism.
In court Friday, the defendant’s attorney, David Gilbert, argued that his clients had a right to express free speech.
“The plaintiff is saying that they didn't have the right to say what they did. I find that a little bit odd, seeing that the industry itself relies so much on the first amendment."
Kilchermann herself was not in court. Her attorney, Carrie Gallagher, argued the case should not be dismissed. She said the defendants targeted Kilchermann as an individual.
"She is not bringing this in her capacity as editor,” Gallagher said. “She happens to work for a newspaper. The actions by the defendants have has severe impact on her, and they were with malicious intent. And the sole purpose of this was to try to get her fired."
Gallagher said the letter also damaged Kilchermann's relationship with her bosses.
After hearing arguments Friday Hoseth-Kreeger ruled that, as editor of the local paper, Kilchermann is a public figure. Kreeger found the statements by the defendants were opinions and were protected speech under the First Amendment. She also denied a request to impose sanctions against Kilchermann for filing what the defendants say was a frivolous lawsuit.
After the ruling, the defendants spoke about their relief that the case was over.
"The judge did the right thing, I'm sad there's no sanctions because this frivolous, malicious, in my opinion, lawsuit, put us through hell,” said defendant Darlene Thompson. “I mean, it's horrible."
Thompson explained the defendants’ reasoning for writing the letter to the CEO of GateHouse Media.
"If you have any problems with any manager, be it a newspaper or a restaurant, you write their corporate office,” she said. “That’s what we did."
Thompson told 24 Hour News 8 she now makes sure her online posts are clear that she is expressing her opinion.
"We all use Facebook and Twitter and different media to express our opinion, and we have a right to that, that’s our first amendment right," she said.
Previous attempts to reach GateHouse media have been unsuccessful.
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