Beth Holloway has sued the National Enquirer for allegedly publishing false stories about the murder investigation of daughter Natalee Holloway. Natalee disappeared in Aruba while on a high school graduation trip. Joran van der Sloot is the prime suspect, and he is now in a Peruvian prison for admitting to killing a girl down there.
This lawsuit does not appear to have merit. Let’s assume for the purposes of argument that the National Enquirer intentionally published false information. Why would that false information be illegal? It is generally not against the law to publicize false information, but there are some exceptions.
The first exception would be defamation. However, giving false facts about the disappearance of someone like Natalee Holloway is not defamation unless you somehow besmirch her character in the process. Saying that Joran had a hand-drawn map of where to find her body, for example, is not even close to defamation.
The second exception could be intentional infliction of emotional distress. I don’t see how stories with false leads carry any intent of causing Beth Holloway extreme emotional distress. For starters, unless the stories had hard evidence with specific allegations that were designed to trick Beth into believing the rumors, it would be odd to say they cause extreme emotional distress. Instead, they were really just tabloid stories that had no credibility whatsoever.
To prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, Beth Holloway would have to show that the National Enquirer intended to cause her extreme emotional distress. This is far from likely. Their intent was to make money publishing rumors about Natalee’s disappearance, not to give extreme emotional distress to Beth.
An example of extreme emotional distress would be telling someone you just killed her daughter, not publishing rumors in a criminal investigation. It is accepted that rumors are going to get spread and crazy people are going to make false claims in high-profile criminal cases. I don’t believe that this is the type of “extreme” emotional distress contemplated by this cause of action.
Besides that, allowing a lawsuit for IIED in this type of case would severely limit free speech. A publication would have to do a thorough investigation before even publishing rumors. That is absurd and bordering on China-level muting of free speech.
A plaintiff could also seek an injunction that forbids a publication to publish anything in the future that is false. Courts rarely ever grant such an injunction due to 1st Amendment free-speech protections. Otherwise, a publication would be frightened into not publishing anything at all unless they are 100% sure that it is true. Think of the standard this would set up. Pushed to its extreme, you wouldn’t be able to even report on a criminal case until after the verdict came in. You wouldn’t even be able to interview the victim in a criminal case. After all, he or she might be lying. At least the defendant (and some defendants have a good reputation) is saying that the victim is lying. So how do you know who is telling the truth? No injunction of the sort is going to be upheld in court.
The article that was released by the Associated Press does not specify the actual cause of action by Beth Holloway against the National Enquirer. But unless I am missing something here, she doesn’t seem to have a case at all. There is no law I have ever heard that allows you to sue a tabloid or any other publication for publishing rumors absent a thorough investigation to see if they are true or not. It is up to the reader to decide how strong the rumor is and whether it should be believed. Permitting a Beth Holloway to sue and win in a case like this would pretty much be the end of free journalism.
We should all hope Natalee is somehow still alive. But we should also hope that Beth Holloway loses this case. Otherwise, why would any publication do investigative journalism?