I sent the following e-mail to the Herald-Times editor on June 8. He did respond that the author should not have been allowed to use the word “murder” in his letter to the editor (which I appreciate) but that calling Michelle Gregg irresponsible is not defamatory in a legal sense.
An accusation of bad behavior need not met the legal definition of libel for a newspaper to refuse to publish that accusation. Claiming she was irresponsible with her child when she was not is a “false statement of fact that exposes a person to hatred, ridicule, or contempt” and “causes her to be shunned.” The H-T has a history of holding letters for verification of negative claims about specific people. Publishing this accusation was a poor ethical choice.
Here is the electronic mail I sent last week:
I am very disappointed that you chose to publish the inflammatory letter about Harambe the gorilla today. By the standards that the Herald-Times has established for reader-submitted content, this letter should have been rejected.
First, the use of the word “murder” is not only unnecessarily inflammatory, it violates the standards set by the Herald-Times years ago. As you recall, you forbade the use of the word “murder” in HTO comments to describe abortion, because murder is a felony. You instead suggested the word “killing,” which is not a term that describes a felony. If the word “murder” is not allowed in the absence of a murder conviction in HTO comments, it should certainly not be allowed in a published letter to the editor.
Some may think that the killing of Harambe was unjustifiable. They are wrong, but they have the right to hold that opinion. But the killing was not a murder. The zoo employees decided to end the life of an animal to save the life of a human child. If the child was in danger from a human being, it would be seen as a justifiable homicide. The same is true here. If the word “murder” is not allowed to describe abortion, it should not be allowed to describe the killing of a gorilla to save a three year old child.
Second, the statement in the fictional letter from Harambe that “an irresponsible human let her child enter my zoo habitat” is defamatory and should have been removed from the letter. The police have decided there will be no charges against the mother, who has been subjected to unrelenting hate, vitriol and harassment on social media and has even gotten numerous death threats. There was never any evidence that the mother was irresponsible – it was just assumed in the anger over the death of a gorilla that she was a bad mother. Quite frankly, some of these assumptions are based on racist stereotypes of black women.
Anyone who has children – especially more than one – knows that toddlers are fleet of foot and can scamper off quickly. In an environment like a zoo where there are a lot of people and there is a lot of noise, a toddler’s ability to zip away is enhanced. Prosecutor Joseph Deters told the New York Times the mother “was being attentive to her children by all witness accounts, and the 3-year-old just scampered off.”
It is unfortunate that the newspaper serving a city that houses one of the nation’s most prestigious journalism schools would print a letter with an accusation based on conjecture and rumor. I think you owe Michelle Gregg a public apology for deciding to print this inflammatory and false accusation against her.
I hope you will exercise better judgment in choosing which letters to the editor to print.