A coal operator is suing a West Virginia newspaper and reporter for libel.Murray Energy Corporationfiled suit against environment reporter Ken Ward Jr. and the Charleston Gazettelast month, andthe casewas recently transferred to federal district court. The complaint is on behalf of Murray Energy, its subsidiaries, and owner Bob Murray.According to the complaint, an article Ward posted on his popular “Coal Tattoo” blog was libelous. Murray claims the blog post—called “Mitt Romney, Murray Energy and Coal Criminals”—has damaged his reputation and business and thus put the jobs Murray Energy provides in Belmont County, Ohio in jeopardy.In the post, Ward mentions a fundraiser Murray held for Mitt Romney. He also mentions the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in Utah. Crandall Canyon was operated by a Murray Energy subsidiary, and the company pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations for the accident that killed six miners and three rescue workers in August 2007. Ward also cites an Associated Press articlethat reports another Murray subsidiary in Ohio pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act last month.The complaint says the “false and defamatory manner” of the post is “affirmatively stating and clearly implying” that Murray, Murray Energy and the company’s subsidiaries are criminals. “This statement intended to convey, and did convey, to the average reader that Plaintiff Murray is a criminal, dishonest and scurrilous executive. In reality, Plaintiff Murray has a reputation for integrity and honesty, is not a criminal, has never killed anyone, and has diligently worked to preserve the environment.”(It’s also probably worth a note that the coal miners attending Mitt Romney’s campaign event in Beallsville, Ohio also work for Murray Energy. News has emerged in the past few daysthat suggest the event was mandatory for the miners, but they weren’t paid for their attendance.)The Citizen Media Law Project says Ohio defamation law treats cases differently whether the plaintiff is a private or public figure. Private figures only have to prove that the charges are false, and that the defendant didn’t take reasonable steps to discover the truth. Public figures have to prove the defendant acted with actual malice.In the complaint, Murray says he’s not a public figure because he “has neither voluntarily sought public nor media attention.”The Citizen Media Law Project says someone can also be a “limited-purpose public figure” which is: someone who injects himself or herself into a particular public controversy. The determination of whether a particular individual qualifies as a limited-purpose public figure depends on the (1) plaintiff's access to the media; and (2) the extent to which the plaintiff, by virtue of his or her position in the community or involvement in a matter of public concern, can be said to invite public comment or attention. Examples of individuals and organizations deemed limited-purpose public figures by Ohio courts include:
the owner of a private art school (for purposes of discussing its administration);
a retired schoolteacher who worked for the public school system for 30 years, regularly attended and voiced concerns at school board meetings, and had his own talk show entitled "One Man's Opinion" where he discussed matters relating to the board (for purposes of discussing his statements and conduct at a board meeting); and
a restaurant and its owner (for purposes of review of the restaurant).
So, if you comment on a coal company's actions and the legal repercussions, does that make the owner a limited-purpose public figure?Murray is seeking more than $150,000 in damages from the Gazette. A pretrial conference is scheduled for September 26. Attorneys for the Gazette didn't return calls for comment. To view the complaint, click here.