It is a settled rule that expressions of an opinion "false or not, libelous or not, are constitutionally protected and may not be the subject of private damage actions" (Rinaldi v Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 42 N.Y.2d 369, 380, cert denied 434 U.S. 969). The question here is whether the Appellate Division has properly applied this rule in dismissing plaintiff's defamation action under CPLR 3211 (a) (7) upon the ground that the two allegedly defamatory communications, complained of in separate causes of action, are pure opinions and, as such, not actionable as a matter of law.
The essential facts appear from plaintiff's complaint and her supplementary affidavit. Plaintiff was a member of defendant Communications Workers of America, Local 1120, and employed at New York Telephone Company in Saugerties, New
The communication giving rise to plaintiff's first cause of action was a tape-recorded telephone message made by defendant Martini, vice-president of Local 1120, which played automatically on April 25, 1984 to anyone dialing the private telephone number provided to union members. (The union maintained a telephone answering and information service for its members.) The recorded message stated: "Wednesday, April 25th It is with amazement I report to you, the good membership of this union that Louise the scab Steinhilber has been named secretary of the week by a local radio station. Even further beyond comprehension is the fact that a union member, Barbara Van Etten, is the one who called the radio station to suggest Louise the scab be considered for what should be an honorable position. In Barbara's case, brains aren't everything. In fact, in her case they are nothing. She has a soft heart and a head to match. Louise the scab, years ago, she was an unknown failure. Now she is a known failure. She lacks only three things to get ahead, talent, ambition, and initiative. But she has friends. In fact, if you have her for a friend, you don't need any enemies. In times of trouble, she is waiting to catch you * * * bent over at the right angle. At least, she looks like a million, every year of it. Her boyfriend drinks ten cups of coffee a day to steady his nerves, just so he can look at her face. When she comes into a room, the mice jump up on chairs. But she could be a perfect model, for a shipbuilder. If she ever gets into an elevator, if she could fit in it, it better be going down. And, in case I haven't made my point, 1986 is closing in upon all of us. Let's choose our friends by their deeds. Only in solidarity can we expect to be successful. For the Communication Workers of America, Local 1120, this is Rick Martini."
Plaintiff bases her second cause of action on a banner displayed on August 11, 1983 — during picketing activity — on the pickup truck of defendant Schatzel, the area representative of Local 1120. The words on the banner, which plaintiff concedes "formed a part of the [union] protests," were:
"#1 SCAB LOUISE STEINHILBER SUCKS".
Defendants moved to dismiss both causes of action on two grounds: (1) that because the communications grew out of a labor dispute and were entitled to the protection afforded by section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (29 USC § 158 [c]), the allegations of malice and of actual damage in the complaint were insufficient and the complaint was subject to dismissal under the rules established in Letter Carriers v Austin (418 U.S. 264) and Linn v Plant Guard Workers (383 U.S. 53); and (2) that, in any event, the communications were statements of pure opinion, not statements of fact or of mixed fact and opinion, and, as such, not actionable. Because it was not alleged that defendant Schatzel was connected in any way with the taped message or that defendant Martini had had anything to do with the display of the banner, Special Term dismissed the first cause of action as to Schatzel and the second as to Martini. In all other respects, it denied the motion.
The majority at the Appellate Division held that the banner, but not the taped message, was a communication made "in the context of a labor dispute" (115 A.D.2d 844, 845). It did not, however, reach the question of the adequacy of the complaint under Letter Carriers v Austin (supra) and Linn v Plant Guard Workers (supra), because it concluded that both communications were statements of pure opinion and that the complaint should, for that reason, be dismissed. The Appellate Division, therefore, modified the order and granted the motion dismissing the complaint in its entirety. The dissenters at the Appellate Division would have denied the motion as to the first cause of action holding that the statement in the taped recorded message — "she lacks only three things to get ahead, talent, ambition, and initiative" — was an expression of mixed fact and opinion which, as distinguished from a statement of pure opinion, is actionable (115 A.D.2d 844, 847-848).
For reasons which will appear, we agree with the majority at the Appellate Division that both statements in issue were expressions of pure opinion. The order dismissing the complaint should, therefore, be affirmed. We find it unnecessary to reach defendant's contentions that the statements arose out of a labor dispute and that the complaint does not contain the allegations of malice and actual damages required by Letter Carriers and Linn.
In addressing the decisive question, whether the statements are opinions and thus privileged, we observe that in framing the issue both parties have assumed the applicability of Gertz v Robert Welch, Inc. (418 U.S. 323).
The rule to be applied may be simply stated. An expression of pure opinion is not actionable. It receives the Federal constitutional protection accorded to the expression of ideas, no matter how vituperative or unreasonable it may be (see, Rinaldi v Holt, Rinehart & Winston, supra, at p 380; Gertz v Robert Welch, Inc., supra, at pp 339-349). A "pure opinion" is a statement of opinion which is accompanied by a recitation of the facts upon which it is based. An opinion not accompanied by such a factual recitation may, nevertheless, be "pure opinion" if it does not imply that it is based upon undisclosed facts (see, Ollman v Evans, 750 F.2d 970, 976 [DC Cir], cert denied 471 U.S. 1127; Buckley v Littell, 539 F.2d 882, 893 [2d Cir], cert denied 429 U.S. 1062; Restatement [Second] of Torts § 566 comment c). When, however, the statement of opinion implies that it is based upon facts which justify the opinion but are unknown to those reading or hearing it, it is a "mixed opinion" and is actionable (see, Hotchner v Castillo-Puche, 551 F.2d 910, 913 [2d Cir], cert denied sub nom. Hotchner v Doubleday & Co., 434 U.S. 834; cf. Cianci v New Times Pub. Co., 639 F.2d 54, 64, 65 [2d Cir]).
While it is clear that expressions of opinion receive absolute constitutional protection under Gertz, determining whether a given statement expresses fact or opinion may be difficult. The question is one of law for the court and one which must be answered on the basis of what the average person hearing or reading the communication would take it to mean (see, Rinaldi v Holt, Rinehart & Winston, supra, at p 381; Mr. Chow of N. Y. v Ste. Jour Azur S.A., 759 F.2d 219, 227-228). There is no definitive test or set of criteria (see, Mr. Chow of N. Y. v Ste. Jour Azur S.A., supra, at pp 225-226). The essential task is to decide whether the words complained of, considered in the context of the entire communication and of the circumstances in which they were spoken or written, may be reasonably understood as implying the assertion of undisclosed facts justifying the opinion (see, Restatement [Second] of Torts § 566 comment c).
While the Supreme Court in Gertz did not focus on the distinction between fact and opinion, the court, in a case decided on the same day as Gertz, Letter Carriers v Austin (418 U.S. 264, supra), has provided a helpful precedent. In Letter Carriers, involving a newsletter sent out during a labor dispute, the question involved libel judgments based on references to plaintiffs as "scabs" followed by a quoted description of a "scab" as "a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class" attributed to author Jack London.
We eschew any attempt here to reduce the problem of distinguishing fact from opinion to a rigid set of criteria which can be universally applied. The infinite variety of meanings conveyed by words — depending on the words themselves and their purpose, the circumstances surrounding their use, and the manner, tone and style with which they are used — rules out, in our view, a formulistic approach. A court must have the flexibility to consider the relevant factors and to accord
While none of the opinions in the Federal cases cited above purports to devise a universal test, several discuss general criteria. One, which contains a helpful discussion, is Judge Starr's plurality opinion in Ollman v Evans (supra), setting out four factors which should generally be considered in differentiating between fact and opinion. The four factors are: (1) an assessment of whether the specific language in issue has a precise meaning which is readily understood or whether it is indefinite and ambiguous; (2) a determination of whether the statement is capable of being objectively characterized as true or false; (3) an examination of the full context of the communication in which the statement appears; and (4) a consideration of the broader social context or setting surrounding the communication including the existence of any applicable customs or conventions which might "signal to readers or listeners that what is being read or heard is likely to be opinion, not fact" (Ollman v Evans, supra, at p 983; see, discussion of four factors, id., at pp 978-984).
In analyzing whether the statements that plaintiff lacked "talent, ambition, and initiative" would be understood by the average listener as pure opinion or as implying that the speaker had an undisclosed basis for the statements, as plaintiff contends, we first examine the content of the whole communication as well as its tone and its apparent purpose. Like Jack London's description of a "scab" (n 2, supra) it is evident that the tape-recorded message was intended to be invective expressed in the form of heavy-handed and nonsensical humor. In what could be viewed as a clumsy effort to imitate London, the message strives in a juvenile way to achieve humor in, for example, the comments that plaintiff "looks like a million, every year of it", that her "boyfriend drinks ten cups of coffee a day to steady his nerves, just so he can look at her face", and that when plaintiff "comes into a room, the mice jump up on chairs." The sentence which plaintiff selects from the message and claims is "factually laden" — impugning her as lacking in "talent, ambition, and initiative"
To be sure, in another context, a flat statement that a person lacks talent or ambition or initiative might be viewed as a factual assertion, if considered under the first and second Ollman factors: whether the statement is sufficiently specific to convey "a precise core of meaning for which a consensus of understanding exists" (Ollman v Evans, supra, at p 979) and whether it is "capable of being objectively characterized as true or false" (Ollman v Evans, supra, at p 979). But, "even apparent statements of fact may assume the character of statements of opinion, and thus be privileged, when made in public debate, heated labor dispute, or other circumstances in which an `audience may anticipate [the use] of epithets, fiery rhetoric or hyperbole'" (Information Control Corp. v Genesis One Computer Corp., 611 F.2d 781, 784 [9th Cir], supra). Here, the inescapable conclusion from the verbal context of the entire message and all of the circumstances under which it
What we have said applies with even greater force to plaintiff's second cause of action based on the scurrilous banner displayed as part of the picketing activity during the strike. The majority at the Appellate Division held that the banner, in "the context in which the statement was made", was intended as "an expression of disapproval" and that it was, as such, an opinion and not actionable (115 A.D.2d 844, 847). We agree with these conclusions and observe that the dissenters at the Appellate Division have not taken issue with them.
The order of the Appellate Division should, therefore, be affirmed, with costs.
Order affirmed, with costs.