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

 

“Fake” News, Real Consequences: Circus of Suits Against Media Concerning Seth Rich Murder March Along

Joel Rich and Mary Rich v. Fox News Network, LLC, Malia Zimmerman, and Ed Butowsky, No. 18-2321-cv (2nd Cir.).  District Court reversed and case remanded September 13, 2019; Ed Butowsky v. Folkenflik, NPR, Inc., NPR.ORG, et al, No. 4:18-cv-0442 (E.D.Tex.).  Magistrate’s Recommendation to Deny Motion to Dismiss adopted August 7, 2019; Wheeler v. Twenty-First Century Fox, et al., No. 17-cv-5807, 322 F. Supp. 3d 445 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).


News, and News and Speculation About the News. The murder of Democratic National Committee (DNC) staff member Seth Rich in 2016 precipitated an explosion of rumors about Rich’s death, including speculation that he had divulged DNC emails and strategies to non-mainstream media entity WikiLeaks.  

Mainstream media joined in the fray, exploring and elaborating in ways that Rich’s parents assert caused them emotional damage.  Fox News and its reporter and commentator approached Rich’s grieving and aggrieved parents, who were disturbed that their son’s death would sully his name, and induced  the Riches to hire private investigator Ed Wheeler, recommended and paid for by Butowsky.  

As a condition of his engagement, Wheeler promised not to disclose any information about his investigation absent the Riches’ consent.

Nonetheless it is alleged that Butowsky and Wheeler worked together, meeting with high level Washington communications staff and promising to keep the White House informed of their investigation.  

In anticipation of publication, Fox messaged Wheeler about intelligence sources and pressures to publish, urging Wheeler to become the public source of the WikiLeaks story.  Fox not only published a story using Wheeler as a source, but Fox also recounted Wheeler’s breach of his agreement with the distraught parents. Wheeler next said that his sources were Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman and Ed Butowsky.  

Butowsky is said to have continued to contact the Riches, allegedly to inform them that Zimmerman had located their son’s killer.  Butowsky appeared in the media with commentary about the WikiLeaks allegations.

The New York Litigation. The Riches sued Fox, its reporters and its commentator in the Southern District of New York.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently reinstated the Riches’ claims, holding that it is of no consequence that the parents’ action for intentional infliction of emotional distress can be seen as a proxy for the defamation action that died with their son.  

Seriatim As Serious as Single Incident Harm. The federal appellate court rejected the notion that the intentional infliction of emotional distress must be established by a single incident:  harms that unfold serially, perhaps not sufficient individually to reach the high bar of harm required to establish intentional infliction of emotional distress, may cumulatively be so damaging as to be legally cognizable. 

As the known existence of a valid contract between Wheeler and the Riches was not contested, interference occurring before and continuing after formation of the agreement does not preclude establishing but-for causation.  

Privilege Preclusion Inapt. The court declined to opine on whether newsgathering and its exigencies could excuse interference with contractual relations, observing that what the court perceived as a malicious act — providing an investigator ostensibly for the bereaved but in reality for the media — would not be susceptible to establishing a justification for interference in the Rich – Wheeler contract. 

More to Come. Media fascination with the death of Seth Rich and its sequelae did not end with the circular accounts issued by Fox, its reporter and commentator, and its investigator.  

Wheeler, threatened with suit by the Riches, sued multiple media defendants and associates for defamation, including Butowsky, and in particular alleged that Fox’s reporter published fabricated quotations attributed to Wheeler.  Wheeler did not meet with success:  his case in the Southern District of New York was dismissed at the pleading stage.

The Texas Litigation. Butowsky sued National Public Radio (NPR) and its reporter.   Butowsky did not pursue the media law firm and Wheeler’s counsel, who Butowsky avers is engaged in a legal campaign against Fox. 

Butowsky’s complaint elaborates upon allegations in the Rich complaint that interest and involvement in the investigation of Rich’s death reached the highest levels of the executive branch. 

Butowsky points to NPR’s reporter’s participation in an interview that offered the reporter’s views on the stories, including noting Fox’s retraction and offering journalistic lessons from the story.

Dismissal Not Warranted Where Privilege May Not Be Present. A magistrate, and later a judge in the U.S.D.C. for the Eastern District of Texas denied the media defendants’ motion to dismiss, observing that the fair report and/or fair comment privileges that y serve as a defense to defamation would not permit dismissal as a matter of law, particularly where the privilege cannot be conferred by the media of its own accord by commenting on its own reporting.  Not only is this form of self-insulation not permissible, where there is malice, the protections of these reporting privileges may be lost.

The Heart of the Matter Is What is at Stake. The magistrate observed that while the burden remains on the plaintiff to establish that any report was false, this may be done by establishing not that each statement published was false but that in the aggregate or in the manner of presentation, the “gist” of the publication was not substantially true.

Opinion Not a “Get Out of Jail Free” Card. Defamation may be intrinsic or extrinsic, explicit or implicit, and the assertion that opinion is not defamatory will not prevail if the underlying statements said to support the opinion are false or recklessly published. 

The Magistrate underscored the limitations on the opinion exemption from defamation, observing that implications from false assertions of fact are not insulated simply because an opinion is wrapped around them.

Impressions Count. Although a publisher cannot be liable for every inference that might be drawn from a story, that principle does not hold where a publication in its entirely creates a particular communicative impression.  The arrangement and presentation of information factors into the analysis.

No Doubt About Who They Had in Mind. It does not matter that the subject of a defamatory statement is not explicitly mentioned if it is inescapable that the defamed person is the subject of the report.

Public Figure or Limited Public Figure Status Not Yet Established. The Magistrate was not persuaded that on motion to dismiss that the defendants could establish that Butowsky, a well known financial expert and media commentator in his own right, is a limited public figure for purposes of application of the higher standards of proof that apply to such a person.  Nonetheless, the complaint provides allegations sufficient to plead malice.

Investigation, Failure to Investigate, and Bias. Plaintiff’s assertion that NPR adopted and published a media lawyers’ narrative without verification and with information that would cast that narrative in doubt, could establish malice. 

The Magistrate stressed that a failure to investigate alone would not establish malcie, but turning a blind eye to pertinent information could.  This might be shown by preselecting information conforming to a particular story, having preconceived, ideas, repetition of known false ideas, or other conduct proceeding from doubtful material in purposive avoidance of the truth.

Failure to Demand Retraction Will Not Defeat Claim.The Magistrate rejected the assertion that the state’s Defamation Mitigation Act precludes recovery.  The act’s requirement that plaintiff demand retraction before suing for defamation is a limitation on punitive damages, not a bar suit, particularly if the sense is that damage is so extensive that retraction would be unavailing. 

The Story Continues in Courts.  Seth Rich’s surviving parents and Butowsky’s cases proceed in New York and Texas at this writing.  Wheeler’s case against Twenty First Century Fox was dismissed in August, 2018, and there is no record of appeal having been taken.  The Southern District of New York found that Wheeler had no claim for defamation, as none of the statements in issue could be shown to be demonstrably false. 

Rich v. Fox News Network, LLC, et al. (2nd Cir.)

Butowsky v. Folkenflik, NPR, at al. (E.D. Tex.)

Wheeler v. Twenty-First Century Fox, 322 F.Supp.3d 445 (S.D. N.Y., 2018)

Calamitous Course Correction: Defamation Plaintiff Avers that Huffington Post’s Clarification Only Made Matters Worse

Evans v. The Huffington Post and Ashley Feinberg, No. 1:19-cv-00536 (S.D. Miss.).  Complaint filed August 21, 2019. Defendants’ answer due October 16, 2019.


In September, 2018, the Huffington Post and its reporter, Ashley Feinberg, clamoring for background on the appointment and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, published an article describing a raucous, drug-fueled atmosphere at the elite Georgetown Preparatory School that Kavanaugh had attended. 

The Huffington Post article intimated that the students’ lives were so degenerate as to implicate two of them, including the plaintiff, then a Georgetown Preparatory School student, in the 1984 overdose death of David Kennedy, son of Robert Kennedy, in Palm Beach, Florida.

The Huffington Post asserted that Derrick Evans, today a teacher and social and environmental justice advocate, was involved in procuring the drugs that killed Kennedy. 

When Douglas Kennedy, David Kennedy’s brother, who was said to have been with Evans in Florida, insisted on retraction, the Huffington Post agreed and complied, sanitizing the statements about Kennedy, but leaving — and allegedly underscoring — the statements about Evans.

The published “correction” was compounded by indicating that support for its statements could be found in an affidavit said to be in the possession of the New York Times.  Evans asserts that no such affidavit exists and that in fact he participated in the identification and arrest of the individuals who actually provided drugs to David Kennedy.

Further corrections referenced “mischaracterization” of individuals’ involvement.  Evans claims this correction is not sufficient because, in the absence of any involvement in David Kennedy’s death, there can be no mischaracterization.

The story was further refined and references removed.

Evans maintains that the publication accused him of criminal activity, making it libel per se.  Evans alleges that Huffington Post’s failure to sufficiently confirm or disconfirm the statements published made the publication malicious and with willful disregard of the truth or falsity of the statements.

Defendants are to answer on October 16.  Until then, and perhaps always, editors may do well not to place reliance on any purported curative powers of corrections.

Evans v. Huffington Post and Feinberg_Complaint August 21, 2019 (S.D. Miss.)

 

Perhaps That Editorial Wasn’t Fit to Print: Vacating Federal Trial Court’s Dismissal, Second Circuit Permits Sarah Palin to Proceed with Defamation Action Against the New York Times

Palin v. The New York Times Company, No. 17-3801-cv (August 6, 2019).


Former vice-presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin sued the New York Times for defamation subsequent to the newspaper’s publication of an editorial on the occasion of the 2017 shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise.  The New York Times revived the discredited allegation that Palin’s Political Action Committee’s (PAC’s) use of cross-hairs on a campaign map was an incitement to political violence, precipitating the 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has vacated dismissal of Palin’s complaint, which may, as amended, now proceed to resolution in the federal court in the Southern District of New York.

The basis for the appellate panel’s determination was largely procedural but not to be taken lightly on that account.  The court of appeals observed that the trial court adduced evidence in a hearing intended to clarify whether Palin had pleaded “actual malice” with sufficiency to withstand dismissal.  In ruling on the defendant newspaper’s motion to dismiss, the judge went beyond matters in the pleadings and, usurping what would ordinarily be a jury function, found facts in favor of the New York Times.  Even had the trial court wished to convert the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment, this was not done and could not with integrity be done, the court of appeals found, where Palin had not had a fair opportunity to present material supporting her claim.

The bounds of procedural fairness that the Second Circuit has outlined will keep courts and counsel on their toes, but the significance of permitting further proceedings touches on two significant points of the law of defamation that routinely form impenetrable barriers to plaintiff’s success.

Palin is a public figure, and as such she cannot prevail without showing that the allegedly defamatory publication was made with “actual malice,” defined as knowing or reckless disregard of the truth of the statement in issue.  The Second Circuit was unwilling to permit dismissal to stand without exploration of Palin’s support for the position that the New York Times had knowledge that the assertions about her PAC had been discredited.  The sufficiency of review of material on hand that dispelled the ‘incitement’ allegation before publication and any influence on Times’ editorial writer’s arising from family ties to a gun control advocate are matters of credibility for a jury’s determination.

Taken as a whole, the appeals court found that to the extent that these circumstances could give rise to an inference of recklessness, a plausible claim had been stated, and the trial court’s inclination toward the plausibility of the other party is not a consideration in evaluating the sufficiency of the claim.

Of equal significance is that the publication in question is an editorial.  Definitionally, an editorial proffers opinion, and definitionally, an action for defamation cannot be brought to challenge opinions.  Such actions may succeed only where opinion is grounded in or interwoven with falsehoods.  The Second Circuit’s willingness to entertain the notion that linking Palin to the 2011 shooting involved more than opinion permits some latitude in assessing what is necessary to demonstrate “provable fact” that would separate actionable factual defamation from mere opinion.

It is of course unknown whether Palin will prevail in her renewed proceedings.  Even if she does not, however, the claim itself, concerning an opinion published about a public figure, serves notice to publishers that the impenetrability of press protections is not as inviolable as it has heretofore been believed to be.

Palin v. New York Times 2nd Cir. August 6, 2019

 

 

 

 

A Matter of Opinion: Federal Court in Kentucky Dismisses High School Student’s Defamation Case Against the Washington Post Stemming from Reporting of Charged Encounter on the National Mall

Nicholas Sandmann v. WP Company, LLC, d/b/a The Washington Post, No. 2-019-00019 (WOB-CJS).  Opinion and Order of Dismissal with Prejudice, July 26, 2019 (E.D. Ky.)


An encounter between a high school student and a Native American activist on the National Mall in January, 2019, was videotaped and widely distributed on the internet.

The day having been one of several groups’ gathering to exercise First Amendment freedoms, the appearance of conflict between an adolescent wearing a MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hat and a drumming Native American was undoubtedly newsworthy and of public interest.

Interaction among students from a Catholic High School who had traveled to Washington to engage in pro-life activity and a Native American participating in an Indigenous Peoples’ March could only be catnip to those inclined to perceive any encounter between persons of differing demographic groups as a manifestation of one form of social ill or another.

Upon posting of the video, the internet blew up, and the commentariat raged apace, in general denouncing the adolescent Sandmann and applauding the Native American Nathan Phillips.

Some days hence, questions arose as to the bona fides of the initial accounts of the exchange, which questions were buttressed by disclosure of additional video.

Religious superiors affiliated with Sandmann’s high school condemned the incident, a position from which retrenchment was necessitated upon disclosure of additional information.

Interviews and talk show appearances ensued.  Sandmann was interviewed, as was Phillips.  Pundits weighed in and editorialists opined. The public shared its views and the Twitterverse was alive with chatter about this alleged confrontation between individuals presumed to be from different worlds.

Counsel volunteered to help Sandmann, who had been thrust into the public spotlight at an early age, to address the consequences of perceptions of his activity.  As a result, multiple lawsuits have been filed against major media.

On July 26, 2019, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky dismissed Nicholas Sandmann’s complaint against the Washington Post with prejudice.

The federal district court has concluded that, as a matter of law, Sandmann had not stated a claim of defamation under Kentucky law.

The court enumerated the elements of defamation under state law and referred to Supreme Court precedent establishing that opinions on matters of public concern are not actionable without provably false factual statements.  Opinion is fully constitutionally protected,  and there can be no legal remedy for statements  that cannot reasonably be seen to be stating facts.  Milkovich v. Loraine Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990).

The court found that some statements in the seven articles published by the Washington Post were not specific to Sandmann, and were not identifiable to Sandmann, and thus were not actionable.

The court also found that statements made by Phillips that Sandmann “blocked” him from moving and that Phillips felt fear were statements of opinion which, n the absence of demonstrable underlying factual falsity, were not actionable.

Additionally, the court found the statements challenged were not defamatory.  It is not enough,the court observed, that an allegedly defamatory statement is “annoying, offensive, or embarrassing.”  (Op. at 11).  The statements must expose the claimant to “public hatred, ridicule, contempt or disgrace,” or induce in others a bad opinion (Id.)

The court turned to the defamatory nature of the statements published, which Sanamann alleged indicated that he assaulted or intimidated Phillips, uttered taunts, or engaged in racist conduct.   The court concluded that the published articles said no such things.

The court offered that, it analyzing the case as one of libel per se, the court was precluded from venturing beyond the plain meaning of what was actually published or to engage in explanation, enlargement or innuendo to add to the words allegedly libelous effect (Op. at 20-21).

Any consequences allegedly suffered by Sandmann– such as social media scorn — were without significance to the court, as extrinsic evidence would make the case one of libel per quod, which was not, in the court’s view, the claim before the court, which was one of libel per se.

A published account indicating that  a public encounter was heated or tense would not be sufficient to meet the elements of defamation, nor would rhetorical headline hyperbole be found defamatory.

Phillips’ subjective account of his experience of fear was not defamatory nor could assigning political affiliation to Sandmann subject Sandmann to the sort of social contempt required for statements to be libelous per se.  Neither Sandmann’s statement of his subjective intent nor Phillips’ description of his subjective emotional state are  susceptible to objective verification.  As such, these accounts cannot be actionable in defamation.

The court observed that shielding opinion from civil liability serves to protect First Amendment speech and press interests.

Prognostication: Impossible.  As noted above, Sandmann’s case against the Washington Post is but one of several cases in which he seeks to recover for alleged harm suffered as a result of the media firestorm that ensued from his encounter with Phillips.  If the decision here is any indication, subsequent cases may be intensively fact driven.  Whether the breadth of construction of statements of perception such as “blocked,” which is arguably a verifiable and measurable matter, will be accorded in other cases remains to be seen.  Of equal significance is whether other cases will be limited to consideration of libel per se.

Sandmann v. Washington Post, Opinion and Order of Dismissal July 26, 2019