Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, et al., No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Defendants Global Witness Publishing and Global Witness (“Global Witness”) published an investigation into bonuses paid to plaintiffs as members of a government entity engaged in negotiating to conclusion an oil lease of unprecedented significance for Liberia. Plaintiffs sued Global Witness for libel as Global Witness’ report on Liberian corruption intimated that the bonuses were bribes.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed anti-Slapp proceedings, as federal courts are not bound by the District of Columbia Anti-Slapp Act. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal.

Similarly, the trial court’s dismissal of the libel action because the publication was subject to First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs assertions concerning ‘actual malice’ were without foundation in law, the court found. This conclusion, also affirmed on appeal, generated significant debate among the panelists about the meaning and future of the “actual malice” standard for libel actions concerning public figures, as established in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

New York Times v. Sullivan insulated the press from suit for defamation for publication or broadcast of arguably defamatory material unless the publication was made with “actual malice,” either a knowledge that the published information was false or a reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Id. Subsequent to the decision, it has been noted that meeting the “actual malice” standard is difficult, to say the least.

The present Global Witness affirmation of dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims prompted Senior Circuit Judge Silberman to dissent with some force, taking aim not only at currents in jurisprudence but also offering concerns about the consolidation of power in the media and in the technological giants engaging in distribution and curation of online publications.

The “actual malice” standard is unworkable and in this case has been erroneously interpreted, Judge Silberman declared, causing a rift between the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit. The standard for dismissal is “whether a complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than another alternative explanation,” quoting Palin v. New York Times, 940 F.3d 804, 815 (2nd Cir. 2019). Dissent, Slip. op. at 15.

More significantly, New York Times v. Sullivan, Judge Silberman offered, echoing the views of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, was a policy decision presented as interpretation of the Constitution. While it can be argued that the decision was necessary to protect the press from an avalanche of libel suits intended to discourage coverage of civil rights activities, the opinion itself is not jurisprudentially sound, as it is lacking in grounding in the facts and as it departs from centuries of common law. Id.

The Silberman dissent brooks activist judges no mercy. By “constitutionalizing” policy, the Supreme Court has embraced the standards of communist regimes. Once a principle is established, it will not be willingly relinquished. Dissent, Slip. Op. a 16. If comparing the Supreme Court’s actions to those of regimes antithetical to United States’ freedoms were not enough, Judge Silberman next ventured into the theological realm, remarking that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had scolded him for a perceived deficiency in regard for the Court. This chiding, Judge Silberman wrote, caused him to sense that the Court is more concerned with “maintaining a veneer of infallibility” than in correcting errors, no matter how far afield the Court had wandered or stepped on the toes of correlative branches. Id.

However much the New York Times v. Sullivan decision sought to promote the freedom of the press at the time the case was decided, today there is great concern, in Judge SIlberman’s mind, about the consolidation of media within one political point of view. Where it was once feared that press consolidation would induce bland homogeneity, that is hardly the case currently, he has observed, as hasty publication of extreme material, with the assurance no liability will ensue, causes no small amount of harm for which, for public figures, there is likely no redress.

When press powers are aligned with technological giants that curate material in line with the political iew of the press, the threat of suppression of ideas is, in Judge Silberman’s view, too real to overlook. While private technological companies are not bound by the First Amendment, suppression of disfavored views strikes the judge as “un-American.” Dissent, Slip. Op. at 22. Where history instructs that control of communication is an essential first step in establishing authoritarian control, the need to consider these issues is pressing indeed, Judge Silberman has written. Dissent, Slip. Op. at 23.

JustLawful Two Cents’ Worth: JustLawful shares the concerns expressed about media “hive mind” and about the capacity of online gatekeepers to work great mischief. JustLawful would never question the power and potency of the manner in which New York Times v. Sullivan has, rightly or not, accorded the press an immunity ordinarily reserved for the sovereign. Yet JustLawful questions whether overruling New York Times v. Sullivan would cause the press to be any more open to divergent thought. Moreover, if New York Times v. Sullivan were overruled with the view in mind to cause openness to divergence of thought, would that not be as much a policy decision as Judge Silberman’s criticism suggests the case has always been?

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, Inc. and Global Witness, No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

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