Gleason v. Smolinski
Free Speech Defense Failed As Posters Were Targeted To Harass
Constitutional Law | Torts | Intentional Torts | Defamation
- Connecticut Appellate Court
- AC 34990
- Apr 08 2014 (Date Decided)
- Sheldon, J.
Because the context and placement of posters were designed to “hound” the plaintiff into providing information about her ex-boyfriend’s disappearance, rather than to raise a matter of public concern, the conduct, targeting the plaintiff, was not protected speech and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Snyder v. Phelps, regarding picket signs displayed at soldiers’ funerals, was distinguished. Madeline Gleason, a school bus driver, dated co-worker, Bill Smolinski, who disappeared. The defendants, Smolinski’s mother, Janice Smolinski, and sister, Paula Bell, installed missing persons’ posters along Gleason’s bus route and home and made comments about Gleason. Gleason brought this action against the defendants. The trial court found that the defendants’ conduct constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress and statements that the plaintiff was a murderer or involved in murder constituted defamation. The court awarded the plaintiff compensatory damages of $32,000 on her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim and $7500 on her defamation claim plus one third of the total compensatory damages award of $39,500 in punitive damages. The defendants appealed claiming, first, that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. The unpreserved claim failed review under the 1989 Connecticut Supreme Court case of State v. Golding, because a constitutional violation did not clearly exist. The plaintiffs, citing Snyder, contended that their speech related to a matter of public concern because the missing persons’ posters were designed to uncover information and assist with the ongoing investigation and potential prosecution of crime. The comparison to the public speech described in Snyder was found unconvincing. The trial court’s findings of fact supported its conclusion that the defendants’ placement of posters was targeted specifically at the plaintiff, for the defendants’ admitted purpose of “trying to break” her. The posters’ context and placement was designed to “hound” the plaintiff into providing information about the disappearance, rather than to raise a matter of public concern. The defendants’ conduct, insofar as it targeted the plaintiff, was not protected speech, and their claim of a constitutional violation resulting in the deprivation of fair trial failed. The finding that the defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous and constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress was not clearly erroneous. For defamation, three statements were actionable per se. Injury to the plaintiff’s reputation was presumed.