Remember the Starbucks debacle that happened recently, where a manager was accused of being racist against two black customers? She called the police on the men, who were not paying customers, earlier this month… and he may have a heck of a case for defamation.
Starbucks, and specifically it’s CEO Kevin Johnson, has gone very out of its way to imply that the manager, known as Holly Hylton, was acting on “subconscious racial motivations” when she asked the pair, who were loitering, to buy something or leave her store.
Well… it turns out things may not be as simple as all that…
Defamation law varies by state, but the gist is simple: Negligently saying, or implying, something that is provably false about a private person constitutes actionable defamation, as long as the statement harms the victim’s reputation.
In Pennsylvania, where the incident occurred, defamation is governed by 42 § 8343. The statute is a typical defamation law, and it puts the burden on the plaintiff to show, among other things, that the statement was made about the defendant, was false, and caused damages.
Johnson has called the manager’s conduct “reprehensible” and ordered a shutdown of its US stores for training to address “implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome.”
On its official Twitter account, Starbucks tweeted Tuesday: “We’re taking a hard look at who we are as a company. We’re ashamed & recognize that racial bias is a problem we must address.” The company added: “There are countless examples of implicit bias resulting in discrimination against people of color, both in and outside our stores.”
And a Starbucks spokesperson has said that “in this situation, the police never should have been called.”
A reasonable person would conclude that Starbucks is calling Hylton, at best, an unwitting racist. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Starbucks is saying its manager failed to follow store policy as a factual matter.
Calling someone a racist might seem to be an opinion (and opinions, even poorly reasoned ones, cannot form the basis of a defamation lawsuit). But courts have shown a willingness to entertain defamation suits against companies that irresponsibly misrepresent provable facts and, in doing so, portray people as racist.