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In a decision that speaks to the tremendous progress activists have made in advancing LGBTQ rights, a New York court has ruled that falsely claiming that a person is gay no longer counts as defamation per se.
A defamation lawsuit typically requires the injured party to prove that a false claim caused them to suffer harm or damages, but in matters involving defamation per se, the claim is deemed to be so severe that damage need not be proven by the plaintiff.
Previously, falsely calling a person gay counted as defamation per se in New York, in line with accusing them of having a “loathsome disease” or having committed a particularly horrible crime, NBC News reports.
However, that law was overturned by the Supreme Court of New York’s Second Department in December, which ruled that accusations of homosexuality required plaintiffs to prove that the claim had caused actual damage or harm.
It stemmed from Laguerre v. Maurice, in which a pastor for the Gethsemane Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brooklyn, Jean Renald Maurice, accused church elder Pierre Delor Laguerre of being “a homosexual” during a meeting of 300 people.
Maurice alleged that Laguerre had “disrespected the church by viewing gay pornography on the church’s computer,” a charge that led to Laguerre being stripped of his duties and forced out of the church.
In dismissing Laguerre’s claim of defamation, the court cited a 2012 decision by the Supreme Court’s Third Department which ruled that homosexuality no longer counted as defamation per se due to “current public policy,” with the court noting that “it cannot be said that current public opinion supports a rule that would equate statements imputing homosexuality with accusations of serious criminal conduct or insinuations that an individual has a loathsome disease.”
Specifically calling out the the “profound and notable transformation of cultural attitudes and governmental protective laws” aimed at the LGBTQ community, the Second Department noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing marriage equality nationwide and a 2003 decision striking down anti-sodomy laws.
“Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the false imputation of homosexuality does not constitute defamation per se,” the court ruled.
Eric Lesh, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association of New York, told NBC News that the previous definition of defamation per se assumed that being gay “was so shameful and such a disgrace that it was just assumed that obviously your reputation has been injured and you don’t have to prove [damages].”
Calling the court’s ruling a “no-brainer,” he said it had taken New York a “long time…to catch up to where we were public-policy wise. Yes, this is kind of an obvious decision, but the law moves slowly, and society usually pushes it forward.”
Lesh noted that the ruling wasn’t binding throughout the state, but only covered the Second Department’s remit of Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, plus parts of Staten Island and the Hudson Valley.
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