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When Jaine Quainoo and her friends posed for photos next to a mural of a thong-clad bottom at Freaknik 1998, they didn’t expect to share the moment with a national audience. Quainoo and three friends came to Atlanta from Birmingham, Ala., for Black College Spring Break, usually dubbed “Freaknik.” While wandering through Underground Atlanta, Quainoo and her friends stopped to have their picture taken by a souvenir vendor. The women didn’t notice, but a photographer from Vibe magazine also caught some shots from a different angle. The photos, which show the young women copying the mural by directing their behinds at the camera, ran in a photo-essay about the event titled “Freak Out” in Vibe‘s October 1998 issue. Interspersed with the pictures are comments from people who attended Freaknik. One block of text near the photo of Quainoo quotes a man saying: “Hoes, Sex, Money. Freaknik shows black people coming together as one — in a sexual aspect. It makes your mind wonder just how good life can be.’” Vibe calls it an effort to capture the atmosphere of a huge street party that often turns raunchy. Quainoo calls it libel. She filed suit against Vibe, charging libel per se, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. She is asking for unspecified damages plus punitive damages. Quainoo v. Vibe Ventures, LLC, No. 99VS150746 H (Fult. St. filed March 10, 1999). Quainoo’s lawyer, Quinton Seay of Thomas, Means, Gillis, Devlin, Robinson & Seay’s Atlanta office, says the text block amounts to a caption for the picture, depicting his client as a woman of loose morals. Her family and acquaintances showed her the spread and it caused her embarrassment. “It made life kind of difficult for her and her friends,” Seay says. Quainoo wants to get the questions of whether she was defamed in front of a jury, but Vibe‘s lawyer Peter C. Canfield has filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion is set for a hearing Jan. 24 before Fulton State Court Chief Judge A.L. Thompson. Canfield, a partner with Dow, Lohnes & Albertson’s Atlanta office, declined to comment on the case. However, in the motions and responses he has filed with the court, he makes three central arguments: The text was not a caption, and clearly did not refer to Quainoo; the language is colloquial and does not imply that Quainoo is a prostitute; and Vibe‘s editorial staff never saw a connection between the text block’s language and the photo of Quainoo. Also, Canfield notes, simple “disparaging words” like “hoe” only support a defamation claim if the plaintiff can show special damages, which Quainoo could not. In his motion for summary judgment, Canfield suggests that Quainoo is trying to “manufacture a cause of action by giving a strained interpretation to the defendant’s publication.” The text block, Canfield says, consists of quotes from people who attended Freaknik, giving their personal takes on what the festival is about. Not one of them refers to Quainoo, and there is no indication that the person who made the “hoes” comment even saw Quainoo’s photo. Canfield also noted that the spread included disparaging quotes from women about the men at the event, referring to them, among other things, as “wannabe mack daddies.” “As even a cursory review of the photo-essay demonstrates, the quotations interspersed throughout the work are filled with exaggerated and figurative expressions of speech in the vernacular of the African-American college students who attended an indisputably raucous, exuberant event,” he wrote. Canfield has already had some success in defending Vibe from these charges. Quainoo’s friend Janet Foreman, who was also in the photo, filed suit in Fulton Superior Court. Judge Doris L. Downs granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Foreman v. Vibe Ventures, LLC, No.99CV14235 (Fult. Super. Oct. 14, 2000). But Seay says Foreman’s case had some technical and procedural problems that Quainoo’s does not. Foreman, for example, didn’t file until Sept. 28, 1999 — more than a year after the article ran. In his motion, Canfield cites Cox Enterprises v. Bakin, 206 Ga. App. 813, 816 (1992), which says that supposedly libelous material “must be read and construed in the sense in which the readers to whom it is addressed would ordinarily understand it.” While Canfield uses the case to shore up his argument that Quainoo cannot base a defamation claim on “unreasonable innuendo,” Seay says at least a couple of readers interpreted the essay as his client did. “The reason she sought legal counsel is that she was confronted by people who associated that block of text with the picture,” he says. “We didn’t dream this up.” Simply running the picture as a stand-alone shot without any text accompanying it would have been a little embarrassing, but fine, Seay says. The text accompanying the shot makes it libel, he says. But in his motions Canfield says the photo is honest and not defamatory. “In the photo-essay the plaintiff was presented as what she was: a young woman who attended Freaknik and struck poses with her friends in front of onlookers in what plaintiff’s friend admits was an effort to look ‘sexy,’ ” he wrote.

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