Newspaper Editor Sues Readers for Defaming Her Character

July 18th, 2013 11:36 AM

Here's something you don't see every day: a newspaper editor suing six readers for $25,000 in damages including “humiliation, mortification and embarrassment,” “sleeplessness and anxiety” and “mental anguish.”

The lawsuit grew out of the actions of Lori Kilchermann, general manager and editor of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard in Michigan, who decided to accompany a story about a police methamphetamine bust with a photo of a Republican fund-raising event that had occured at the same location two years previously.

The picture on the Sentinel-Standard website (which has since been removed) showed Republican candidates Rick Snyder and Brian Calley, along with Kristy Cuttle, who was arrested and later pleaded guilty in the meth case, under the headline “Four Arrested in Farmhouse Bust.”

Authorities found meth and other drug-related objects while making four arrests and removing three children from the scene, the article stated.

Kilchermann said she decided to use the image after several community members contacted the paper to tell its staff of the connection to the earlier event and that the history of the land made it newsworthy.

Soon after the photograph was used in the article, Mary Seidelman -- who organized the political event two years earlier and was outraged that her likeness was tied to the crime -- called Kilchermann, “insulted her and threatened to send a man there to 'rip her throat out,'” the lawsuit states.

Six days later, Seidelman and two Ionia Republican Party activists, Ken and Darlene Thompson, met the newspaper editor in her office. The trio accused Kilchermann of practicing “yellow journalism” and publishing articles typically found in tabloids, the lawsuit contends.

The editor denied that accusation, but she agreed to remove the photo from the website.

However, the Thompsons and retired teachers Paul and Ann Bowering remained upset by what was said during the meeting, and Ken Thompson sent an email to executives of GateHouse Media, which owns the Sentinel-Standard.

The text of the email called Kilchermann “a petty bureaucrat” who was “nothing more than an unprofessional representation of your corporate family.”

This now former subscriber of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard will be sure to let others know that if they desire to study “Yellow Journalism,” they may consider approaching Lori Kilchermann for an internship.

In a court affidavit signed by Kilchermann, she states that she was placed under investigation by GateHouse Media after receipt of the letter.

Ken Thompson explained that the email “was an opinionated position on our part, but it was still an opinion, and we have a right to express it.”

In addition to the letter, Kilchermann's suit refers to a post written by Ken Thompson in August of 2012 that appeared on the Ionia County Republican Facebook page. In it, Thompson claims that the Sentinel-Standard  “editorializes the news, as did the Yellow Journalists in the days of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.”

Then in November, Kilchermann filed a lawsuit against Ken Thompson, Mary and Philip Seidelman, and Paul and Loretta Bowering.

Darlene Thompson posted a Facebook message of her own in December, when she claimed the small-town newspaper “used what is better known as yellow journalism … to sensationalize a sad story of a meth bust by referring to a Republican fundraiser two years earlier.”

On April 15, Kilchermann amended the lawsuit to include Darlene Thompson, and soon after, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the suit. “She is suing six of us for posting our opinion, and writing her corporate office, regarding an article she printed,” the newest defendant stated.

“The case represents a bit of an oddity as it is uncommon for an editor to take action against a subscriber,” stated Adam Ulbricht of the Watchdogwire website.

The lawsuit also presents multiple challenges. In order to successfully prove defamation, Kilchermann will need to prove she isn't a “public figure” according to the traditional legal definition. The judge will also need to decide if the defendant’s claims of sensational journalism are their Constitutional rights, protected by the First Amendment.

None of this would have happened if Kilchermann had decided not to run a photo of how a crime scene looked two years before. I'm familiar with “slow news days,” but this is a perfect example of how not to fill up space in a newspaper and its website!