The Times they are not a-changin’: awkward closing of Palin libel suit fails to provide path forward for standards governing publication of false statements about public figures

 

Palin v. The New York Times, No. 17-04853. 

Judgment for defendant entered February 15, 2022. 

Teleconference scheduled for February 23 at 4:00 p.m.  Public access at 888-363-4735 Access Code 1086415


In issue:  In 2017, Congressman Steve Scalise was shot while practicing with colleagues for an annual Congressional baseball game, causing news media to  echo concerns about gun violence that arose in 2011 when Arizona Senator Gabrielle Giffords sustained a gunshot wound to the head in a supermarket parking lot.

The New York Times opined that a perceived escalation of gun violence was traceable, in the Giffords case, of  incitement induced by a campaign document produced by Governor Palin which featured drawings of gun sight cross hairs on a map to indicate campaign targets.

The New York Times corrected itself but this did not, in Palin’s view, suffice to relieve the publication of liability for defamation.

While jurors were deliberating whether The New York Times ought to respond in damages to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for its publication of  an admittedly inaccurate, promptly removed,  statement in an opinion piece, the court granted judgment in favor of The New York Times.

Although jurors had been cautioned against accessing media while deliberating, jurors reported that they learned of the entry of judgment through telephone notifications received prior to the jurors’ verdict for the New York Times.

The court was of the mind that entry of judgment for The New York Times could provide efficiencies after appeal:  If the jurors found in favor of plaintiff Palin, and the Second Circuit reversed the trial court, judgment for Palin in accordance with the juror’s findings could be entered, obviating the need for another trial.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  

Civil procedure thumbnail.  Judges may dismiss cases before trial, after trial, and after jury determinations in the court’s discretion if the court is of the view that a litigant cannot and, if after trial, has not, as a matter of law, established a case.  Rule 50, Fed.R.Civ.P.  Entry of judgment as a matter of law in accordance with Rule 50  modernizes the common law judgment non obstante verdicto (judgment notwithstanding the verdict), permitting courts the flexibility of entering judgment at almost any time.

The court has augmented the record to include statements to the jurors about avoiding media as well as cases relied on by the parties concerning the motion for judgment by the court, and has invited the parties to discuss any issues presented by the court’s and the jurors’ conclusions by telephone conference.

By entering judgment for the New York Times, the court indicated that the former governor had not produced evidence meeting the heightened standard for defamation of public figures announced more than a half-century ago in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

Law thumbnail. To prevail in a  defamation claim, a public figure must prove that the publication of a defamatory statement was done with “actual malice”, defined as knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard of whether the statement was false or not.  “Actual malice” does not mean subjective ill will but refers to publishing, as stated, with knowledge that a statement is false or with reckless disregard — more than negligence — with respect to truth or falsity.

This rarely met standard has provided insulation for publishers which some, including two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, now sense merits revisiting.  Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.  ____ (2021) (Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, writing separately, dissent from denial of certiorari).

At this writing there is no opinion concerning the final judgment on the docket for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and it is not known whether the court will issue one.

Recent case materials:

Order February 16, 2022

Order to Supplement Record February 16, 2022

Final Judgment February 15, 2022

Earlier case materials:

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

Palin v. New York Times, Opinion S.D.N.Y. August 29, 2017

Supreme Court Opinions:

Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.___ (2021)

New York Times Company v Sullivan 376 US 254 11 L Ed 2d 686 84 S Ct 710 95 ALR2d 1412 1964

The New York Times, March 10, 1964

 

 

 

 

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

“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)