Traveller term not defamatory – ruling

Irish Independent (Ireland), Dec. 11, 2002
Ray Managh

It is not defamatory to refer to a person as a Traveller, whether or not he or she is a member of the Travelling community, a court has ruled.

Judge Elizabeth Dunne handed down the decision in the Circuit Civil Court yesterday when she struck out defamation proceedings against the Evening Herald.

She said the court had to determine if the word Traveller was capable of having a defamatory meaning in the context of the present time, taking into consideration the various changes of attitude in society.

Eoin McCullough SC, counsel for Independent Newspapers, said that pensioner John Moorehouse, of St Colmcille’s Terrace, Bray, Co Wicklow, had sued the newspaper group for up to €38,000 damages for defamation. He submitted it was an unsustainable claim and should be struck out.

He said that while a December 2001 news report of an assault under the headline “Elderly man stable after hammer attack” had not mentioned Mr Moorehouse by name, the newspaper conceded he had been the person referred to in the article, and had promptly corrected its error.

The story had stated “an elderly Traveller” was in a stable condition in hospital after having been viciously beaten over the head with a hammer.

Mr McCullough, who appeared with Mr Oisin Quinn, said Independent Newspapers vigorously disputed the contention that to refer to someone as a member of the Travelling community, even when that was not correct, defamed that person.

For a meaning to be defamatory it must tend to lower the person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally, and it was clear from legal authorities that while words may tend to bring a plaintiff into odium, ridicule or contempt with a particular section of society, it did not make them defamatory.

Mr James Doherty, counsel for Mr Moorehouse, said his client claimed his reputation had been considerably discredited and damaged and that he had been lowered in the estimation of others. He had been exposed to hatred, contempt and ridicule and had suffered distress and embarrassment.

Mr Doherty submitted the only purpose of the inclusion of the word Traveller had been to inject some element of spice or sensation into the article.

Judge Dunne asked if it could be appropriate, with the existence of such protective legislation, to allow defamation proceedings continue on the basis of an allegation it was defamatory to say someone was a member of the Travelling community?

She said she could not in the circumstances come to the view that the reference was capable of a defamatory meaning, and was satisfied it was not.

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