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.

When Zeal Outstrips Reason: Second Circuit Upholds Judgment Stemming from Website’s Publication of Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Powell v. Jones-Soderman and Foundation for the Child Victims of Family Courts, No. 20-532-CV (2nd Cir.) February 26, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently upheld a Connecticut federal court judgment that the founder of a child advocacy foundation had libeled a Connecticut father when, during pending divorce proceedings, she published on her website allegations that the father had committed child sexual abuse. 

On appeal, Jones-Soderman argued that the trial court erred in finding her liable because proof of the falsity of her statements was lacking, and such proof was necessary to overcome her First Amendment defense. Moreover, she said that the trial court failed to give consideration to her good faith belief that she was publishing the truth.  

While the First Amendment may protect commentary on matters of public interest, no such protection extends to demonstrably false statements, which the appellate court found were amply examined by the federal trial court in taking testimony and in admitting to the record state court findings that the allegations of sexual abuse were without merit.  

Jones-Soderman is not entitled to reliance on an “actual malice” standard for publication of defamatory material, the Second Circuit found, but even if she were, that standard would have been met, and it would negate any qualified privilege she might have.  

That Jones-Soderman published statements about the plaintiff when in his ex-wife’s employ in a custody battle and with knowledge that clinicians, state authorities, and the state court had found the abuse claims without foundation.  No qualified privilege may serve as shield in such circumstances, nor may a “good faith belief” in the truth of the published statements be invoked where Jones-Soderman knew of evidence contradicting the claims.

Jones-Soderman’s status as a mandated reporter of child abuse is of no moment with respect to the facts in this case, particularly where no complaint to Child Protective Services was ever made.

Powell v. Jones-Soderberg, No. 20-532 (2nd Cir.)

Still Standing, Yet at a Standstill. Federal Court Lauds Attorney’s Efforts to Call to Account the Kentucky State Supreme Court and Bar Administrative Committee But Decides Federal Relief is Precluded as Either Speculative or Barred by Sovereign Immunity

Doe v. Supreme Court of Kentucky, et al., No. 3:19-cv-236 (JRW).  Memorandum and Order granting dismissal entered August 28, 2020.

Doe sought admission to practice law in Kentucky after having done so successfully in Florida for nine years.  During that time, Doe was diagnosed with a mental health condition.  She agreed to practice with a monitor and complied with clinical recommendations.

Kentucky made multiple inquiries about Doe’s condition, demanding all medical records, convening hearings, requiring over-reaching contractual obligations but finally, after nearly two years, relenting in its insistence on conflating a mental condition with a deficit of character. Doe was admitted to practice.

Doe promptly commenced suit against the state court and bar authorities for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, defamation, and for other wrongs she asserted were inflicted upon her in the course of her pursuit of a license to practice law.

The federal court hearing her case praised her diligence in pursuing her licensure as doing so conferred a benefit not just to her but to the profession and society in general.  Where it is known that attorneys suffer a disproportionately higher incidence of stress, depression, addiction and suicide than others in society, hounding and threats of disqualification by the state and the bar serve only to invite harm, the court observed, as those fearing loss or denial of licensure or the oppression of the state will not seek help, and where help is not sought, some will lose not only their cases but their lives

Nonetheless, the court determined that it could not grant Doe relief.  Prospective relief could not be awarded as it would be speculative.  Other relief requested by Doe, even though she had standing, could not be awarded in federal court because immunity principles forbade doing so.  

Doe v. Supreme Court of Ky. (W.D. Ky. 2020)

Cayuga Nation and Tribal Leader to Appeal Dismissal of Defamation Suit against “Billions” Creators and Showtime Network

Cayuga Nation and Clint Halftown v. Showtime Networks, Inc., Brian Koppelman, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and David Levien, No. 157902/2019 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.) Decision granting dismissal entered July 17, 2020.


The Cayuga Nation and tribal leader Clint Halftown sued the creators of Showtime Networks drama “Billions” in defamation, alleging that a female character sharing the same name as Halftown was shown to have engaged in illegal conduct.  The court noted that the Cayuga Nation, as sovereign, could not sue for defamation.  Rather than defamatory content, the fictional Jane Halftown was not shown to be engaged in criminal activity.  Moreover, the court concluded, there was no likelihood that the character in the show, which published a statement in the end credits noting its status as fiction, would be perceived to be the living Clint Halftown. 

To be defamatory, a statement must be “of and concerning” and individual and be recognized or reasonably be interpreted as such.  This is a question of law but where a work is fiction, a court must search for “similarities and dissimilarities” to see whether someone who know the plaintiff would know the plaintiff was being portrayed.  

Consideration might be given to similar name, physical characteristics, family, history, and activities, including recreational activities. 

As libel by fiction is counter-intuitive, requiring denial of defamatory material while asserting similarities with the fictional character, more than superficial similarities must be shown, such that one who knows the plaintiff would recognize the plaintiff in the fictional character.

This cannot be established where the real and fictional characters are, as here, of different genders, there is no history of the plaintiff’s involvement in land deals, and no engagement with novel voting methodologies.

That the real and fictional characters have the same last names and occupations is superficial. A viewer would not be misled, and the closing assertion that the show is fictional only underscored the show’s nature.  

Plaintiffs’ trade appropriation claim failed because the statute applies to persons, not sovereigns, and concerns advertising and trade, not fiction. 

Plaintiffs have appealed the order of dismissal in its entirety.  

157902_2019_Cayuga_Nation_et_al_v_Showtime et al Decision and Order

157902_2019 Cayuga Nation et al v. Showtime et al Notice of Appeal (2020)

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Viral Publication and Opinion in a Divided Nation: CNN Settles with High School Student Said to Have Been Defamed by Broadcast of Video of Confrontation with Native American Protester on the National Mall

Sandmann v. Cable News Network, et al., No. 2:19-cv-00031 (E.D. Ky.).  Related matter:  Sandmann v. Washington Post Company, No. 2:19-cv-00019 (E.D. Ky.)


Nicholas Sandmann visited the National Mall on January 18, 2019, joining with fellow Catholic High School students in a March for Life event.  There Sandmann was confronted, face to face, by Nathan Phillips, a Native American participating in a separate event, subsequent to what appears to have been a series of taunts exchanged among protest groups. 

The video confrontation, published nationally by mainstream media, including Cable News Network (CNN), precipitated officials, news commentators, church officials, and others to characterize Sandmann, shown in a “MAGA” (“Make America Great Again”) hat, a symbol of the current executive administration, as a racist. 

Sandmann filed complaints against several media entities separately, two of which, against the Washington Post Company and CNN, have been assigned to the same senior federal judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky.  

Following dismissal with prejudice of the complaint against the Washington Post, Sandmann was granted reconsideration which set aside the dismissal in part and granted Sandmann leave to amend his complaint against the Washington Post.  

In October, 2019, CNN’s motion was denied to dismiss and Sandmann’s motion to amend his complaint were granted. 

A proposed discovery and pretrial schedule was submitted to the court in the Eastern District of Kentucky in both cases on  January 3, 2020. The parties to the CNN case reported publicly on January 7, 2020 that settlement with CNN without trial, on undisclosed terms, had been reached. 

Whether the settlement signals a change of course among other media defendants will likely unfold in the not distant future. 

Notwithstanding — and perhaps particularly in light of — the rhetoric accompanying this case, the legal issues, while well grounded in history, seem to call for particular examination in the age of instant worldwide publication and the simultaneous formation of opinions.  Whether a matter is one of fact, and therefore actionable in defamation, or of opinion, and therefore not, is a longstanding principle. Whether this is changed or modified or subject to new refinement in the age of instant worldwide transmittal and simultaneous formation and publication of opinions remains to be seen.

CNN’s account of the settlement may be found at:

CNN Settles Lawsuit Stemming from Viral Video Controversy

The opinion dismissing Sandmann’s initial complaint against the Washington Post, of some historic note, may be found here:

2019 07 26 Sandmann v. WP Company__Memorandum and Order Granting Motion to Dismiss

Fact v. Fiction Friction: Native American Tribe and Leader Sue “Billions” Showrunners in Defamation

Cayuga Nation and Clint Halftown v. Showtime Networks, et al., No. 157902/2019 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.).  Oral argument on motion to dismiss scheduled for December 23, 2019.


“Billions” is a CBS/Showtime drama series that explores the manners and mores of titans of the New York financial and legal realm.  A fatherless self-made billionaire hedge fund owner squares off against a politically powerful adult child of privilege who cannot escape the influence of his ruthless father.

The Cayuga Nation and its leader object to Billions’ portrayal of them, asserting that the show has intimated the nation and its leader engaged in improper business conduct.  Showtime and its creators demur, asserting that this fictional account bears only a nominal similarity to the plaintiffs, that no viewer would mistake the drama for fact, that the nation as sovereign cannot maintain an action in defamation, and that any claim of misappropriation of Halftown’s likeness must fail, as no likeness has been appropriated and no image has been used in trade or advertising.

Defendants argue that fiction must be accorded strong First Amendment protection, and that the high standard applicable to defamation in fiction cases requires that any representation be unmistakable, indistinguishable from a real person, and involve defamatory statements concerning the target of the defamation. 

None of these standards can be met, defendants submit, where the female tribal leader acting in the show could not be mistaken for the real leader.  Moreover, the portrayal of the tribe and its leaders was not defamatory but rather portrayed the nation and its leader as politically astute.  There was no depiction or suggestion that either the nation or the its leader engaged in any criminal activity, precluding success in claiming defamation per se.

Plaintiffs insist that conclusory arguments without factual support do not support dismissal.  The nation is not without capacity to defend its good name and the idea that oblique representations cannot be actionable distorts the law.

Case Documents:

Summons and Complaint


Memorandum of Law in Support of Dismissal

Case Law in Support of Dismissal

Brafman v. Houghton Mifflin

Milo v. CBS

Summerlin v. Washington Star

Air Zimbabwe v. Tribune


Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Dismissal

 

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)

 

 

 

Graffiti Gravitas: U.S. District Court in Maine Enjoins Enforcement of Student’s Suspension Subsequent to Posting Message About Sexual Assault in School Bathroom

A.M., a Minor v. Cape Elizabeth School District, et al., No. 2:19-cv-00466-LEW.  Opinion dated October 24, 2019.  


A.M. was suspended from high school in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, for violation of the school’s bullying policy.  She has sought and obtained a preliminary injunction on First Amendment grounds prohibiting enforcement of the suspension pending resolution of her claims on their merits.

A.M. had posted a note in a school bathroom announcing “There’s a Rapist In Our School, and You Know Who It Is.”  Another student discovered the note and presented it to school authorities. “Copy cat” postings ensued, the news swept through the student community, and a student was perceived to have been identified as the “rapist,” and was ostracized. 

The school commenced an exhaustive investigation, communicating by letter with parents with concerns and status information.  

If the firestorm within the school were not enough, local and national news media provided its external complement. 

Students protested the suspension of fellow students, and A.M., through her parents, sought relief from the suspension in federal court.

The federal district court rejected the school’s arguments and found preliminary injunctive relief to be appropriate where it appeared to the court that A.M. could show a likelihood of success on her First Amendment claim, where damage to First Amendment interests is presumptively irreparable, and where the harm to A.M. from suspension exceeds any institutional harm to the school.   

The school could not show that A.M.’s post was defamatory, particularly where the law of defamation concerning student speech is not well contoured and where no showing had been made that the link concerned another or was made with negligence.

As protected speech, then, the school would need to show that its actions came within the precedent established by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 509 (1969) and subsequent cases.  Tinker established that students have First Amendment rights that are not coextensive with those of adults but that student speech ought not be interfered with absent substantial disruption in school operations or harm to others.

The court stressed that A.M.’s posting was undoubtedly one of current political interest:  concern about sexual assault and concomitant concern about authority’s responses to claims of sexual assault.  A post-it allegation in a school bathroom is not easily seen, the court observed, as the sort of call to disruptive arms that Tinker contemplates.  

Whether seen from the standpoint of foreseeable harm from the posting or from the standpoint of alleged harm in fact, the court appeared to be of the view that if controversy about this current issue consumed the school for a short period of time, this partakes more of the sort of lively, if sometimes rough-edged, public debate that the First Amendment exists to protect, rather than the sort of chaotic and dangerous behavior that Tinker would denounce.

That some students experienced fear or anxiety about the claim that there was a sexual assailant in the school and that some school administrators needed to work more than they did ordinarily were not the sorts of disruption that Tinker envisioned would justify speech disciplinary measures, the court concluded.  

Neither could the school create a clear line between A.M.’s posting and any harm to another, the court found.  A causal chain between A.M.’s action and the ostracized student had not been established at this preliminary stage.  

As the court perceived that A.M. might succeed on the merits of her First Amendment claim, and as the school defendants had not made a showing sufficient to controvert that claim, the court enjoined enforcement of A.M.’s school suspension.  

A.M. v. Cape Elizabeth School District, No. 19-cv-00466 (D. Maine)

Portland Head Light

Cape Elizabeth at a moment of greater tranquility.  2014 Photograph by James C.B. Walsh.  Displayed pursuant to Creative Commons license.  

 

 

Badmouthing Police Officer Online, Absent Malice, May Not Demonstrate Bad Character Disqualifying Applicant from Licensure as Private Investigator

Gray v. State, No. 18-AP-65 (Kennebec Sup. Ct.) July 18, 2019.


Maine requires proof of character for licensure as a private investigator, as demonstrated through review by the state police.  In Gray’s case, the police were not well pleased with Gray’s online statements about a police officer, and disqualified him from licensure because he was seen as being unable to provide accurate accounts of matters. 

The Maine Superior Court applied the brakes to this position, observing that offering an opinion online is speech protected by the First Amendment.  In remanding for further administrative proceedings, the court concluded that If the posting were made with knowledge of its falsity or otherwise evinced actual malice, then consideration would be appropriate in the applicant’s character evaluation.  

Justlawful observation:  The judge sidestepped the quagmire that open season on online posting as character could invite while providing some guidance on evaluating troubling online behavior, while simultaneously avoiding what might very well turn out to be an epic feud between the police and the applicant for licensure. 

Gray v. State (Kennebec Sup. Ct.) July 18, 2019

Not Without Merit: Federal Court in New York Allows Student Accused of Sexual Assault to Proceed with Defamation Case

Goldman v. Reddington, No. 18-cv-3662 (E.D.N.Y.)  Motion to Dismiss denied September 27, 2019.


Alex Goldman and Katherine Reddington were students at Syracuse University whose overnight encounter following a party ended with Reddington sensing that something had gone awry, although she had no recollection of assault until after psychotherapy months later.  Reddington obtained a physical examination which produced no evidence of assault. The district attorney declined prosecution for lack of evidence.  

However, Syracuse University took note of Reddington’s Title IX allegations and expelled Goldman, who subsequently enrolled in another university and sought employment with an engineering firm.

Goldman’s complaint states that Reddington boasted of succeeding in her case against Goldman on campus at Syracuse and online, and that she either posted or republished online comments calling him a ‘monster.’  Those comments, which attracted attention and public commentary, were tagged to Goldman’s new school and employer.

Goldman was summarily fired from his job.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York has rejected Reddington’s argument that Goldman failed to plead facts sufficient to establish defamation or tortious interference with business relations and declined to address Reddington’s argument that an injunction against further commentary would violate her First Amendment rights, as a motion to dismiss addresses the complaint and not the remedies sought.  

The court did not agree with Reddington’s defense that she had offered non-actionable opinion about Goldman where that opinion was premised upon defamatory accusations of criminal conduct.  

Reddington’s tagging or republication of online posts she claims did not originate with her are not insulated from liability, the court held, for republication of defamatory material is itself actionable. 

Moreover, Goldman could go forward on his claim of tortious interference with business relationships as the claim can be premised on defamation.

Goldman v. Reddington, No. 18-cv-3662 (E.D.N.Y.) September 27, 2019