Dismissal of N.Y. journalist's libel suit against critic upheld

Lilly Chapa | Libel | News | February 26, 2013

A New York appellate panel upheld the dismissal of a defamation suit filed by a journalist against a prominent AIDS activist who criticized her articles about the disease.

The panel concluded in its decision Thursday that journalist Celia Farber can be considered a limited-purpose public figure, which means her claims under defamation law are held to higher scrutiny. Further, the court determined that statements made by Richard Jefferys, the head of AIDS advocacy organization Treatment Action Group, were deemed opinions and not factual statements.

Farber sued Jefferys in 2008 for calling her a liar in an e-mail message to a member of the organization that was giving her an award and claiming that she misrepresented quotes and documents in a controversial article she had written. The e-mail was circulated to the media and politicians.

"The use of the word 'liar' in the contested statement was not actionable," the panel ruled. "The full context of the statement, including its tone and apparent purpose, and the broader context of the statement and surrounding circumstances leads to the conclusion that what was being read was 'likely to be opinion, not fact'."

Joseph Evall, Jefferys’ attorney, said he was very pleased with the court’s decision and it carried important implications for free speech.

“The Appellate Court’s unanimous decision dismissing Celia Farber’s claim against Richard Jefferys upholds important First Amendment rights,” Evall said. “The decision permits Mr. Jefferys to continue to focus on his incredibly valuable work on HIV policy, advocacy and education.”

Farber began writing about the AIDS epidemic for Spin magazine in the 1980s. Many of her columns rejected the medical community’s analysis of the disease, and she has since written a number of books on the subject. In 2006, she wrote an article in Harper’s magazine that criticized AIDS activists and received criticism from doctors and activists alike.

A number of prominent AIDS researchers, including Jefferys, published a rebuttal that discussed more than 50 errors in Farber’s article.

In 2008, Farber was given an award by medical whistleblower group Semmelweis Society International for her dissenting article. Jefferys sent an e-mail message to the organization saying that the journalist was not a whistleblower but a liar and had altered quotes and misrepresented published papers.

Farber learned about the e-mail message and accused Jefferys of making defamatory statements. The New York County Supreme Court granted Jefferys’ motion for summary judgment in 2011, but Farber appealed.

“Jefferys met his burden of demonstrating that plaintiff could not show by clear and convincing evidence that he made the challenged statements with actual malice or with gross irresponsibility,” the decision stated.

Farber and her attorney did not return calls for comment.