Barbara Walters did not defame her daughter’s former classmate in a memoir by referring to her during discussions of the daughter’s troubled youth, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has ruled. 

Nancy Shay sued Walters over passages in Audition: A Memoir describing trouble Shay and Walter’s daughter, Jacqueline Guber, now Jacqueline Guber Danforth, got into during their time at Wykeham Rise School in Washington, Conn., around 1983, and about Shay’s subsequent expulsion.

Shay claimed she became deeply depressed and suicidal following the expulsion, and that the book’s publication in 2008 rekindled those feelings.

The appeals court, in a December 18 opinion by Senior Judge Bruce Selya, said that Nancy Shay’s complaints “paint a poignant picture.” Still, the court sustained U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr., who had ruled that the few people who would recognize the book’s references to a “Nancy” were also likely aware of the circumstances of her expulsion. A related claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress failed without a defamation claim, O’Toole had written.

Judges Jeffrey Howard and Juan Torruella also signed the opinion in Shay v. Walters.

Shay objected to passages including the following: “Jackie [Walters' daughter] started to refuse to come home on weekends. She had a new friend named Nancy, whom the school kicked out midterm for bad behavior. She and Jackie had been found in a nearby town, high on God-knows-what. My daughter, though, was not told to leave. The school obviously did not want to lose Barbara Walters’ daughter.”

Following a subsequent unauthorized absence from the school by the girls, Shay alleged that Walters warned her: “Don’t say anything about this to anybody.” That, she said, is why she rejected a faculty member’s offer to put her in touch with a civil rights attorney when the school expelled her.

The appeals court said that O’Toole was right to conclude that that was the time to look into any claim against Walters, and that any subsequent attention to her role in the affair was due mostly to the lawsuit.

“Today’s decision is a victory for the First Amendment rights of authors and completely vindicates Barbara,” said Walters’ lawyer, Orin Snyder, a New York partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen of Boston also represented Walters in the case.

In an e-mailed statement, Shay’s lawyer, Mark Ellis O’Brien of Leominster, Mass., said: “Every journalist knows—and this includes Barbara Walters—that the journalist owes to the public a duty akin to the court room oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. She didn’t and Nancy Shay suffered.”

In a telephone interview, Shay said: “People with prestige and money are afforded to lie in their true-story biography and to the federal court system.” She said she plans to file a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sheri Qualters can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.