From Press Immunity to Impunity: Dissenting Senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for D.C. Circuit Suggests Overruling New York Times v. Sullivan

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.

Fundamental Speech Freedoms Ill-Served by Denial of Petitions for Certiorari in “Climate Change” Defamation Cases: Justice Alito Dissents

National Review, Inc. v. Michael E. Mann, No. 18-1451 and Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Michael E. Mann, No. 18-1477.  Petitions for Certiorari denied November 25, 2019.


To encourage the free flow of ideas and debate on matters of public concern, the First Amendment insulates statements of opinion from liability in defamation unless those opinions can be shown to be premised on demonstrably false assertions. 

If Jones says, “Smith could not defend my dog,” Jones cannot be sued if Jones has simply offered a sardonic appraisal of Smith’s advocacy.  If, however, Jones makes this statement when Smith has in fact won Fido’s acquittal, Jones may be liable in defamation, for his opinion is grounded in a falsehood. 

Unsurprisingly, yet apparently quite unpleasantly, the eruption of a firestorm of controversy about the soundness of the scientific evidence concerning climate change, accompanied by no small number of challenges to the character of its proponents and opponents, prompted scientist Mann to sue two conservative opponents of his research in defamation.   

No trial has been held as yet:  Defendants the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute asked that the Supreme Court consider who — judge or jury — should decide the contours of defamation claims, and how that should be accomplished.

The petitions for certiorari were denied on November 25, 2019.

Determinations about what is opinion and what is demonstrably true or false may be conclusive of liability in defamation cases, at least insofar as opinion is not actionable.  Special statutes reflect the goal of promptly resolving, through motions practice, claims concerning comment on matters of public interest. 

The capacity of the statutory framework to suit constitutional ends may become more intensive complex where the integrity of matters of scientific inquiry are concerned, as testing the truth of asserted facts and hypotheses is the very purpose of scientific inquiry.  Few would suggest that pretermitting discussion would serve any good end.

Just how much foundation in fact and how much hyperbole may be tolerated before speech loses First Amendment protection and becomes actionable in defamation generates no end of controversy, not the least component of which is who may decide such questions:  judge or jury. If these are questions of law, a judge may decide. If these are questions of fact, a jury may decide, and a judge ought not invade a jury’s fact-finding province.

The time and toil involved in preparing for trial is substantial, making the decision about deciders of great significance.  Yet notwithstanding advocates’ proffered arguments that there is a need for Supreme Court review of these questions, the Court has declined, to the disappointment of Justice Alito, who wrote separately in dissent from denial of the petitions of certiorari.  Justice Alito noted the critical nature of addressing these questions in order to ensure the preservation of First Amendment freedoms, which serve to guarantee that all may “speak freely and without fear” on matters of public concern.

 Confidence in constitutional guarantees is not well served by the uncertainty that is sustained by failure to resolve these questions, Justice Alito has offered.  This is especially so, he has noted, where the Court in recent years has not shied away from addressing First Amendment concerns in regulatory matters.  

While it is true that no rights have been conclusively forfeited in these cases because of the interlocutory nature of the appeal and the availability of trial, Justice Alito perceives the burdens of litigation and trial in themselves as potential impediments to participation in commentary on matters of public concern.  Justice Alito would have the Court step in to resolve such issues sooner rather than later or not at all.  

The Alito commentary:

18-1451_2019 11 25 Alito Dissent from Denial of Certiorari

The Opinion of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that prompted petitions for certiorari:

Inst v. Mann, 150 A.3d 1213 (D.C., 2016)

 

 

 

Florida Panhandler Gets By with a Little Help from the Court, While the Rest of Early May’s Plaintiffs Face a Mixed Bag of Results on First Amendment Claims

For those who have little time to read, what follows are snapshots of cases considering First Amendment claims from courts around the U.S. up until mid-May.

AdTrader, Inc., et al. v. Google LLC.  No.17-cv-07082-BLF (VKD) (N.D. Cal.).May 8, 2019. Google’s proposed email and telephonic communications to class members offering credits without mentioning that acceptance would diminish or moot class action claims or requesting release of class action claims cannot be enjoined.

AdTrader, Inc. v. Google LLC (N.D. Cal., 2019)

Maleeha Ahmad, et al. v. City of St. Louis, Missouri.Case No. 4:17 Cv 2455 CDP (E.D. Mo) May 7, 2019.  Class certification granted in action alleging violations of First, Fourth, and Fourteenth amendment rights relating to police use of force and mace without warning on protesters exercising expressive speech and recording police activity.

Ahmad v. City of St. Louis (E.D. Mo., 2019)

AirBnB v. City Of Boston. Civil No. 18-12358-LTS (D. Mass.) May 3, 2019. AirBnB’s challenge to a Boston Municipal ordinance imposing penalties on booking agents for short term leasing of unqualified properties fails. The challenge, brought pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, cannot succeed where collection of fees is an activity separable from the Section 230 protected activity of publishing third party rental listings.

AirBnB, Inc. v. City of Boston (D. Mass., 2019)

Benner v. St. Paul Public Schools, et al. (D. Minn.) May 3, 2019. Benner brought claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 in connection with alleged adverse employment actions relating to his participation in activity debating and challenging school disciplinary policies and practices. The court recognized that the cumulative impact of investigations and transfer may be argued to be adverse employment action but denied Benner’s claims for retaliation for exercise of First Amendment rights. No municipal liability exists where no evidence shows delegation of authority was made to the schools.  Individual qualified immunity cannot be forfeited where the issue of freedom from reprimands and unsupported adverse action, including threats of termination, causing an employee to feel forced to resign, allegedly because of exercise of constitutionally protected First Amendment rights is recognized under established First Amendment law.

Benner v. St. Paul Pub. Sch. (D. Minn., 2019)

Champion  v. Take Two Interactive Software, Inc. No.  158429/2018, 2019 NY Slip Op. 29136 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. County) May 10, 2019. While video games may be seen as fiction subject to First Amendment protections, this does not automatically remove a game from the applicability of the state civil rights law, particularly where the video game players themselves provide elements of plot.  Petitioner was unable to establish misappropriation of his image and name where the game figure in issue bore no resemblance to him at all (only racial and gender status were the same) and where alleged identical nickname was not shown to be in such widespread public use as to establish identification with plaintiff.

Champion v. Take Two Interactive Software, Inc., 2019 NY Slip Op 29136 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., 2019)

Clark  v. The City Of Williamsburg, Kansas. No. 2:17-cv-02002-hlt  (D. Kan.) May 9, 2019. Ordinance classifying political signs as more appropriate for removal than others because their temporary nature presents structural and safety hazards is a content based regulation of speech that fails strict scrutiny review.  The unconstitutional ordinance may be severed to permit political signs to be regulated on a par with all other signage.

Clark v. City of Williamsburg (D. Kan., 2019)

Colorado v. Jose Luis Galvan, Sr. No. 16CA1988, 2019 COA 68 (Colo. App.) May 9, 2019. Epithets regarding girth and dispositions of sisters uttered during a drunken rumble on a party bus are not sufficient to constitute “fighting words”  — words which would provoke an ordinary person to outrage and invite immediate response — but provocateur’s invitation to “come and get it” invites violence. Use of words not protected by the constitution warranted giving provocation instruction.  Jury determination of criminal assault affirmed.

People v. Galvan, 2019 COA 68 (Colo. App., 2019)

Commonwealth v. David Melo. No. 18-P-77 (Mass. App.) May 8, 2019 (slip opinion).“Expressive” nature of dancing does not confer First Amendment protection shielding defendant from prosecution for lewd and lascivious conduct.

Commonwealth v. Melo (Mass. App., 2019)

Dallas Morning News, Inc. and Kevin Krause v. Lewis Hall and Richard Hall, Individually and on behalf of RXpress Pharmacies and XPress Compounding. No. 17-0637 (Tex.) May 10, 2019.  Warrant directed to individuals but encompassing corporate matters is not evidence supporting a claim of falsity in Dallas Morning News‘ publication of a statement concerning investigation of compounding pharmacy activity. Although it is recognized that objectively true statements may be strung together to suggest criminality, and therefore be defamatory, that is not true where the reporting does not suggest criminality. Where statements in a published account of judicial and official proceedings are substantially true, news reporters enjoy a privilege protecting against claims of defamation.  

Dallas Morning News, Inc. v. Hall (Tex., 2019)

Ex Parte Rodolfo Ortega Nunez. No. 11-18-00156-CR (Tex.App.) May 9, 2019.  Petition for habeas corpus denied because privacy is a compelling state interest supporting laws against surreptitious video recording.  Prohibition on recording is content, not behaviorally, based and therefore is not outside First Amendment protections. Statutes criminalizing recording in bathrooms or changing areas is succinctly narrowly tailored to support the compelling state interest in privacy.  

Ex parte Nunez (Tex. App., 2019)

FilmOn.com Inc. v. DoubleVerify Inc. S244157 (Cal.) May 6, 2019.  Court of Appeals determination that context is irrelevant is reversed.  Context may be considered in determining whether a statement has been made in service of free speech in connection with a public issue.  Utilization reports are too attenuated from the public interest to warrant anti-SLAPP protection. To be protected, a statement must not only concern a matter of public interest but it must contribute to public debate.  As it is possible for commercial speech to contribute to the public interest, that status is not dispositive. Here, two for-profit entities argue about a private report which discusses others’ business practices This context permits the conclusion that the statements in issue were not made in connection free speech as a matter of public interest.  

FilmOn.com Inc. v. DoubleVerify Inc. (Cal., 2019)

In Re Alize R. v. The People, No. G055682 (Cal. App. 4th Dist.) May 2, 2019.  Juvenile adjudication. Student’s remark “Ima shank you” to teacher sufficient to support conviction where words might be seen as reasonably constituting a true threat even if not all individuals would perceive a threat.

People v. Alize R. (In re Alize R.) (Cal. App., 2019)

J.A.C. v M.J.C. No. J-s13027-19, No. 1652 WDA 2018 (Sup. Ct. Pa.) May 8, 2019. Non-precedential. Earlier order invalidated because limiting mother’s discussion of father’s inappropriate communications with half- sister unduly limits mother’s ability to protect child. Gag order limitation is not in the best interest of the child where the child is naive, does not recognize inappropriate sexual conduct, and father engaged in such conduct in front of child. As court perceived it was able to resolve issue without reaching constitutional question, court declined to address mother’s argument that speech restrictions violated her First Amendment rights.

J.A.C. v. M.J.C. (Pa. Super. Ct., 2019)

Kardasz, et al. v. Spranger, et al.  No. 17-cv-10937 (E.D. Mich.) May 6, 2019. Claim asserting ethics violation need not be on record before First Amendment retaliation claim may be found to exist.  Proximity in time between protected activity and termination may suffice to establish causation. Employees’ submission of ethics claims not within official duties precluding action.

Kardasz v. Spranger (E.D. Mich., 2019)

Nelson, et al. Individually and as Members of The Prayer Tabernacle Church of Faith, Inc. v. Brewer, et al. and The New Prayer Tabernacle Church.  2019 Ill. App. (1st) 173143. May 10, 2019. First Amendment precludes civil court jurisdiction of ecclesial matters.  No error occurred here, however, where court applied neutral principles to determine whether church complied with its own state law governing documents.

Nelson v. Brewer, 2019 IL App (1st) 173143 (Ill. App., 2019)

Omicron Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority, et al. v. University Of Southern California.  No. B292907; B294574. (Cal. App. 5th Div.) May 1, 2019.  Associational standing is proper where association aptly represents interests of members but association may not assert interests of unidentified non-members or prospective members said to be inhibited by university’s deferred recruitment program.  The university policy would prohibit recruitment until students had a chance to acclimate to university life. The fraternal association must be offered an opportunity to show: 1) whether the university’s deferred recruitment policy violates law prohibiting punishment of students because of speech, or 2) whether under a limited public forum analysis the university policy unduly burdens fraternities’ speech interests.

Omicron Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority v. Univ. of S. Cal. (Cal. App., 2019)

P&L Development LLC v. .Bionpharma Inc.and Bionpharma Healthcare LLC. No. 1:17cv1154 (M.D. N.C.) May 10, 2019.  Type of court submission is not outcome determinative in addressing right of access questions, but exceptions to access must be justified with particularity.  

P & L Dev. LLC v. Bionpharma Inc. (M.D. N.C., 2019)

Robert W. Mauthe, M.D., P.C. Individually and as Class Representative v. MCMC LLC. No. 18-1901 (E.D. Pa.) May 13, 2019.  Scope of consent reflected in a consumer agreement to receive fax communications and applicability of opt outs as relating to privacy issue in class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, as amended by the Junk Fax Act (TCPA), is a  question of fact precluding summary judgement.

Robert W. Mauthe, M.D., P.C. v. MCMC LLC (E.D. Pa., 2019)

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City In Kansas and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church v. City Of Mission Woods. No. 17-2186-DDC (D. Kan.) May 10, 2019.  No principle requires that a party must succeed on each of its claims to be a prevailing party on the merits for injunctive purposes.  Court anticipates further elucidation of the meaning of equal treatment in RLUIPA cases, but for present purposes evidence showing church and other entities’ presented similar land use requests was sufficient to support determination. Judgment and permanent injunction affirmed.

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kan. City v. City of Mission Woods (D. Kan., 2019)

Touchstream Technologies, Inc. v. Vizbee, Inc. No. 17-cv-6247 (PGG) (KNF) (S.D.N.Y.) May 10, 2019. Conclusory assertions are not sufficiently proprietary to warrant exception to presumption of access to courts and pleadings.

Touchstream Techs., Inc. v. Vizbee, Inc. (S.D. N.Y., 2019)

United States of America, v. Carlos Bayon. No. 18-cr-163-fpg-jjm (W.D.N.Y.) May 9, 2019. The district court affirms a magistrate’s determination that the question of whether defendant’s telephone calls to public officials were unprotected “true threats” is one of fact for trial, not one of law for adjudication by ruling on a motion to dismiss.

United States v. Bayon (W.D. N.Y., 2019)

Vigue v. David B. Shoar, Sheriff of St. Johns County And Gene Spaulding, Director of the Florida Highway Patrol. Case No. 3:19-cv-186-j-32jbt (M.D. Fla.) May 6, 2019. Florida district court has granted injunctive relief forbidding enforcement of public charitable solicitation law to individual soliciting funds while bearing a sign offering blessings. Where no interference with the public is known, public safety may be adequately addressed by other means. Deprivations of First Amendment rights are presumably irrevocable, warranting injunctive relief pending a full hearing.  The court notes that the 11th Circuit has found similar statutes defective.

Vigue v. Shoar (M.D. Fla., 2019)

 

 

Construction Commentary Deconstructed: Online Review of Remodeling of Public Interest within Anti-Slapp Law, California Court of Appeals Holds

Noli Construction v. McClendon, No. D072531 (4th Cal. App.) November 29, 2018. Unpublished.


Online accounts of consumer dissatisfaction may be matters of public interest. Even though the housing project here was individualized, consumer information about such matters enhances public knowledge and therefore is within the protections of the anti-SLAPP law. Moreover, it does not matter if the consumer’s statements were fact or opinion: the issue is whether the statements are demonstrably false. 

Noli Constr. v. McClendon (Cal. App., 2018)

The Online Public Square: Website’s Publication of Allegations of Cult Activities Falls Within Anti-SLAPP Statute Protections, California Appellate Court Holds

Guen v. Pereira, et al., No. A151569 (Cal. App.) Unpublished opinion of the First California Appellate District, Division Five, November 16, 2018.


Defendant Pereira and others created an online website which accused acupuncturist Guen of inappropriate sexual behavior and of operating a cult. Commentary and rebuttal were not permitted on the website. Defendants succeeded in obtaining dismissal of Guen’s claims under the anti-SLAPP law, as their online statements provided consumer information in a public forum notwithstanding the absence of opportunity for rebuttal.

Guen v. Pereira (Cal. App., 2018)