Letourneau v. Zittel
A commentator's opinion in a YouTube video that greed allegedly motivated a local real estate developer and that approval of a proposal for affordable housing could result in urban blight may qualify for the "fair comment" privilege. The defendant, Michael Zittel, allegedly created a YouTube.com video and asked local residents to sign a petition in opposition to an affordable housing application. Zittel commented, "Obviously, from the size and scope of these projects greed is in the [developer's] heart, not humanitarian or social justice." Zittel added, "[D]o we need to replace our old town charm with urban blight[?]" The plaintiff real estate developer alleged that Michael Zittel published defamatory statements. The defendant moved for summary judgment on counts alleging libel per se and libel per quod. Zittel argued that the statements were not made with actual malice and constituted "fair comment" on matters of public concern. To establish a prima facie case of defamation, a plaintiff must prove: 1.) the defendant published a defamatory statement that identified the plaintiff to a third person; 2.) the statement was published to a third person; and 3.) the plaintiff's reputation suffered. "When a plaintiff brings an action in libel per quod, he must plead and prove actual damages to recover," pursuant to the Connecticut Appellate Court's decision in Lega Siciliana Social Club Inc. v. St. Germaine. The plaintiff's attorney admitted he could not identify any work the plaintiff lost, because of the defendant's allegedly defamatory statements. The court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment on libel per quod, because the plaintiff is unable to prove actual damages. The defendant's statements about greed and urban blight constituted subjective opinions that were entitled to protection under the First Amendment. They also were entitled to protection as "fair comment." The fair comment privilege grants legal immunity for the honest expression of opinion on matters of legitimate public interest. "[T]he defendant's statements," wrote the court, "were protected by the qualified privilege of fair comment." The plaintiff failed to prove that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the truth. The court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment.