Thursday, November 18, 2004
Burcham wins in her lawsuit against online columnist
Judge Charles Flannagan ruled that columnist Bill McClure defamed the Roanoke city manager in a January column.
Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham got the accountability she was seeking on Wednesday as a judge ruled that she was defamed by an Internet columnist.
Judge Charles Flannagan ruled that columnist Bill McClure of www.roanokejournal.com spread lies about Burcham - and that shouldn't be tolerated whether the false information involves a public official or an average Joe.
"I don't want to do anything to chill a citizen from criticizing a public official," Flannagan said, "but I do want to chill malicious spreading of lies. It is a delicate balance."
Flannagan, a retired judge from Bristol who heard the case in Roanoke Circuit Court, said no amount of monetary reward could undo what's happened. "It's like trying to unring a bell," he said. "You can't do it." He awarded Burcham $2,500 in damages. She had sought $20,000.
Burcham, who paid a lawyer to pursue the case for her, said the money was not the issue to her.
Instead, she sued McClure to hold him accountable for his actions and hopes that Flannagan's ruling will prevent such situations from happening in the future, she said.
"This was very personal to me," she said, shrugging off any significance of her victory for public officials in general.
McClure, who represented himself Wednesday, did not challenge the assertion that he published false allegations about Burcham that centered on an encounter he detailed on his Web site in January. McClure alleged that she was driving erratically in the Kroger parking lot at Tanglewood Mall and he went on to criticize her driving skills, disposition and conduct as unbecoming a city official.
Burcham has maintained that the incident never happened and that she wasn't even in the mall parking lot on the day McClure wrote about.
McClure later removed his column after receiving a letter from Burcham's lawyer, Stan Barnhill. However, Barnhill argued Wednesday that McClure continued to defame the city manager by publishing only anti-Burcham responses from others on his Web site that were prompted by his initial column.
McClure argued Wednesday that subsequent newspaper articles about the situation drove more traffic on his Web site than his initial column, an indicator that the damage it caused was minimal.
He also said Burcham remains city manager and received a pay raise this year - more signs that she wasn't damaged by his column.
But Flannagan ruled that McClure's allegations about Burcham were false, and, because McClure chose not to file a response to Burcham's lawsuit under provisions of state law or to challenge it in court Wednesday, she was due a default judgment. Because McClure didn't challenge the validity of Burcham's lawsuit, Barnhill did not have to present any evidence to prove her side of the story Wednesday.
After the hearing McClure said, "I feel great."
He gave no immediate indication that he would try to appeal Flannagan's decision. McClure said his Web site will continue on, and added that he won't be afraid to criticize Burcham in the future if need be.
Flannagan was appointed to hear the case by the Supreme Court of Virginia because, with a top city official such as Burcham involved, the city's circuit court judges recused themselves to eliminate any appearance of impropriety.