Calling A Police Lieutenant A ‘Pervert’ Is Protected Speech

Timothy Branch was a police officer with the Town of Stanley, North Carolina for 27 years. The Town terminated Branch in response to allegations of sexual misconduct by fellow employees and accusations by citizens of inappropriate contact with minor females. Branch then sued the City claiming, among other things, that the Town’s mayor defamed him by calling him a “pervert” and a “child stalker.”

A federal court rejected Branch’s claim. The Court found that “rhetorical hyperbole and expressions of opinion not asserting provable facts are protected speech.”

The Court also clearly suspected that the mayor’s statements were fairly accurate. As the Court commented, “while such are strong words, the only evidence in the record does not refute such statements, but provides support for the statements:
“Branch told a 14-year-old girl she was ‘pretty’ and asked her to lift her shirt up so he could look at her stomach;
“Branch tried to buy tanning oils for a 14-year-old girl and deliver them to her while her parents were not there; and
“Branch had been parking outside the Stanley Pool looking at girls in their bathing suits.”

The Court also found that even if the mayor’s statements were false, “a police officer is a public official for defamation purposes. Thus, Branch must show that the alleged defamatory statements were made with ‘actual malice’ – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. At the hearing, Branch conceded that he had no evidence that the mayor made such statements with malice. The Court will, therefore, dismiss such claim.”

Branch v. Guida, 2011 WL 1770074 (W.D. N.C. 2011).