In March of 2007, Brad Delp, the legendary lead singer of the band Boston, committed suicide. Last November, Massachusetts’s highest court of appeals dismissed a defamation lawsuit by band member Donald Thomas Scholz, who claimed that the Boston Herald and Delp’s ex wife Micki falsely blamed Scholz for Delp’s suicide. Three days prior to the suicide, Scholz, a perfectionist who treated Delp and other band members harshly, had informed Delp that Fran Cosmo, another band member with the ability to cover Delp’s painfully difficult high notes, had been disinvited from Boston’s summer tour. Delp had been lamenting Scholz’s tight control over him and discussed suicide as a way to avoid disappointing Scholz and Boston’s fans. However, Delp also suffered from mental illness, and, just eight days prior to the suicide, Delp was caught secretly videotaping the bedroom where his fiance’s younger sister, Meg, lived with her boyfriend. This incident distressed Delp greatly, and both Meg and her sister Pam feared for Delp’s safety.
Because the exact reasons for Delp’s suicide are unknown, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that statements about Delp’s motive were matters of speculation or interpretation, protected by the First Amendment from defamation lawsuits. The SJC also concluded that Herald headlines such as “Pal’s snub made Delp do it: Boston rocker’s ex-wife speaks,” are not reasonably interpreted as fact because readers do not expect newspaper headlines, especially those in entertainment news columns, to “include nuanced phrasing.” The SJC opinion, which confusingly interweaves the Massachusetts requirements for bringing a defamation action and the First Amendment protections that shield particular libel suits, glosses over significant questions such as how misleading headlines can be, how much responsibility newspapers have in ferreting out other causes in cases involving motive, and when the cause of someone’s suicide contains objectively verifiable facts. The Supreme Court, which has not reviewed a defamation case in 25 years, should use this case to clarify some important tensions in defamation law.