A High Court judge has issued a warning to the 2018 hosts of Hot 97’s A.M. Mayhem morning show, two of whom are still hosts, even as it dismissed a defamation suit a pastor brought against them.
“As a postscript I just want to issue a word of warning to the defendants who are young and not so young men that as strong as they may feel about a matter it is always prudent to err on the side of temperance in issuing their opinions,” Justice Nicola Byer wrote in her April 28 decision.
The court found that the defendants, Luke Boyea, Christopher “2Kool” Jones and Charles “Columbian” Villarreal, were entitled to rely on a defence of fair comment, which provided a complete defence to the words spoken.
The case involved a defamation suit that Sigmund Wiggins, who at the time of the lawsuit was a pastor of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Bequia, brought against the trio, who were the host of Hot97.1 FM’s “A.M. Mayhem” show.
Sometime in or about September 2018, Wiggins stood bail for a 70-year-old member of his congregation who was charged with indecent assault of a child who was about 7 years old.
The story was published by Asbert New Network, and subsequently became a topic on A.M. Mayhem.
During the broadcast on Oct. 3, 2018, the defendants interviewed Ronita Ollivierre, who made certain allegations against the man for whom Wiggins had stood bail.
The defendants published certain words on Oct. 3, 2018 and Oct. 4, 2018 that Wiggins alleged were defamatory of him as a minister of religion.
Boyea, Jones and Villarreal admitted that they published the words complained of but did not admit that they were published of and concerning Wiggins by way of his calling as a minister of religion.
They also denied that the statement had the meanings attributed to them by Wiggins and also denied that they were published maliciously.
Further, the defendants said that the statements complained of were fair comment and were published under circumstances of qualified privilege.
Wiggins asked the court to award general damages for slander committed on Oct. 3 and 4, 2018; aggravated damages; exemplary damages; an injunction preventing the defendants, whether by themselves, their respective servants and or agents howsoever otherwise from further sneaking or publishing the said or similar words defamatory of him; costs, and further or other relief as the court deemed necessary or appropriate.
The radio personalities raised the defence of fair comment and qualified privilege as to offer themselves a complete defence.
Additionally, they made it clear that even if the words were spoken, that certainly in at least one instance, they were not spoken of the claimant.
At the trial, Wiggins claimed that the words used during the 9 a.m. slot of the Oct. 3, 2018 show were defamatory of him in that the defendants were clearly stating that paedophile could come to a church for a safe haven and that he, in particular, gave the accused man a safe haven for persons who perpetrate these immoral behaviour.
Wiggins said, therefore, he, having been a pastor at that time of the church that formed the central point of the information from the alleged victim, by inference referred to him.
Regarding statements made during interaction with a male caller to the show on Oct. 4, 2018, Wiggins claimed that the words meant that he himself was involved in the acts of paedophilia and that he himself was “the ‘nasty man’” and, therefore, had committed serious criminal sexual offences as a minister of religion.
He said that the combined effect of all of the utterances was to bring him into public scandal and contempt and to undermine his ability to hold the office of a minister of religion.
The court held that some of the statements were capable of having defamatory meaning in the mind of the ordinary and reasonable listener.
It further held that some of the utterances by the defendants would be likely to be understood by the reasonable and right-thinking members of the society as slander in all the circumstances.
Justice Byer also held that in at least one instance, Wiggins was referred to by name.
“Even though the defendant sought to abbreviate the name to ‘Wiggy’, it was clear in this court’s mind that that abbreviating only came after they had clearly stated his name as the pastor who did not want his name to come out and referred to him as Pastor Wiggins.
“No evidence was led as to there being any other person than the claimant who was head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bequia or that there was any other pastor whose name was Wiggins. In these circumstances, the court is satisfied that those utterances amount to the defamation of the claimant and are actionable per se as slander even in the absence of the proof of actual damage.”
The court having determined that the words complained of were not only defamation but also defamatory of Wiggins, the defendants pleaded the context in which the words were spoken was specifically in relation to Wiggins’ action in posting bail for a member of his church who had been accused of committing a sexual offence against a child under the age of 13.
They argued that the reasonable inference from Wiggins’ action was that he was supporting the accused over the alleged victim and her family.
They said that at the time Wiggins posted bail, he could have not been in possession of all the evidence in the matter, and that the words complained of were published during an interactive radio programme during which the issue of the challenges faced by victims of sexual abuse and their families in reporting crime was raised.
In analysing the defence of fair comment, Justice Byer said:
“At no time at all did this court in considering these words find that the defendants had stated a factual contention. The court is satisfied that in uttering these words that the defendants were doing no more than issuing their opinion on how the churches generally had failed victims of these offences and yet still wanted to have the moral authority over its congregants. In this court’s mind, the defence of fair comment is applicable to this portion of the utterances as well.”
The court held “that ‘whilst an assertion as to motive may be capable of amounting to an assertion of fact, that depends on its context’ and as such the context of what was said by [Jones] … in using the adjective ‘nasty’ to the name of [Wiggins] … satisfies this court that as ‘pungent and offensive the term may be or as ‘exaggerated or even prejudiced’ as the term was, that this was … [Jones’] opinion of the actions of [Wiggins].
“Indeed ‘there is no requirement that opinion be reasonable. It is not [even] necessary that the court should accept the opinion as correct’. Once the court is satisfied that his comment and opinion was on the sole truthful fact that the claimant had stood bail for the accused, then [Jones] … can avail himself of the defence of fair comment.
“Thus in a ‘modern democracy all those who venture into public life in whatever capacity must expect to have their motives subjected to scrutiny and discussion. Nor is it realist today to demand that such debate should be hobbled by the constraints of conventional good manners — still less deference. The law of fair comment must allow for healthy scepticism.’ I therefore find that in all the circumstances the defendants, and the second defendant in particular can avail themselves of the defence of fair comment in these circumstances as well,” Justice Byer wrote.
Jemalie John represented Wiggins and Zhinga Horne-Edwards appeared for the defendants.