A Circuit Court judge in Ionia, Mich. threw out a lawsuit filed by a newspaper editor against six of her readers after they complained about one of her stories.
The story that ran on Feb. 11, 2012 in the Ionia Sentinel-Standard was headlined, "Meth Labs Seized," WOOD TV 8 reported. A sub-headline read, "Location was host to 2010 Republican rally." According to MLive, the original article included a 2010 file photo of the fundraiser, attended by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R). None of the five rally participants pictured were connected to the bust of the meth lab.
Online, the fundraiser photo originally ran with the headline, "Four arrested in farmhouse meth bust."
After meeting with Ionia Sentinel-Standard General Manager Lori Kilchermann, who did not write the story, those readers wrote a letter to the CEO and other top executives of Gatehouse Media, the newspaper's parent company.
The letter, signed by defendant Kenneth Thompson and readers Mary and Phil Seidelman and Paul and Ann Bowering, alleged that Kilchermann's "apparent biased opinion" had led her to use the photos as an attempt to smear Snyder and his supporters in Ionia.
"This is 'Yellow Journalism' at its worst," the letter read, according to WOOD TV. "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.”
"Yellow journalism" is "based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration."
Then, Kilchermann filed the lawsuit, alleging that the "defamatory statements" of the readers had prejudiced the news editor's bosses against her and damaged her reputation in the community. She also alleged she had suffered economic loss, harm to her reputation and standing in the community, mental anguish, emotional distress, sleeplessness and anxiety. (Read the complaint here.)
Kilchermann said in the complaint that one defendant, Mary Seidelman, called the Sentinel-Standard office and told the receptionist she'd be sending a man by to "rip [Kilchermann's] throat out." Another defendant, Darlene Thompson, hadn't signed the letter to Kilchermann's boss; but she posted messages on Facebook saying Kilchermann and the newspaper were practicing "yellow journalism."
Kilchermann also accused the defendants of having an ulterior motive.
"Defendants' conduct as outlined above was extreme, outrageous, and of such character as not to be tolerated by a civil society," the lawsuit reads.
In Ionia County Circuit Court on Friday, the attorney for the six defendants pointed out the irony of a newspaper that relies on the First Amendment to publish opinions censuring the opinions of readers.
Kilchermann's attorney argued that she hadn't brought the case as a member of the newspaper, but as an individual.
"The actions by the defendants have has severe impact on her, and they were with malicious intent," attorney Carrie Gallagher told the court, WOOD TV reported. "And the sole purpose of this was to try to get her fired."
While Kilchermann asked for damages in excess of $25,000, Judge Suzanne Hoseth-Kreeger dismissed the news editor's claim. But she also denied a request by the defendants to impose sanctions on Kilchermann for filing what they called a "frivolous lawsuit."
"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,” defendant Darlene Thompson told WOOD TV 8.
Kilchermann's employer, GateHouse Media, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Sept. 27 in Delaware to restructure about $1.2 billion in debt, the Boston Herald reported.
In addition to leading the Sentinel-Standard in Ionia, Kilchermann was promoted to Michigan Regional Editor for GateHouse publications in 2012, according to the paper's website.
"These next few years are certainly going to be an interesting chapter in the history of journalism,” Kilchermann said in a Sentinel-Standard article announcing her promotion. “I feel very fortunate to have a hand in shaping the future of how newspapers will continue to successfully connect with readers to share news and information.”