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Appeals court sides with Air America host in defamation suit

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A former Air America radio host was exercising her First Amendment rights when she assailed military contractor CACI International on…

A former Air America radio host was exercising her First Amendment rights when she assailed military contractor CACI International on the air, saying it was behind the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, an appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) upheld a lower court’s dismissal of CACI’s defamation suit against radio host Randi Rhodes.  According to the opinion filed Tuesday, Rhodes told her listeners in August 2005 that CACI interrogators who were hired to supplement the thin ranks of staffers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq had directed the abuse of detainees.

She cited military reports, among other publications.

"And then they got this idea, hey let’s get a Department of Defense contract and we’ll send killers over there," Rhodes said at one point, according to the opinion. "That’s exactly what they did. And these people — there’s no command and control. They don’t report to anybody . . . They’re not loyal to America. They’re loyal to the corporation."

Attorney Laura Handman, who represented Rhodes, said the court’s 38-page opinion was a welcome one.

"I always believed in our case," Handman said, "and I believed that the speech involved here was so much at the core of what the First Amendment is all about . . . I was happy to see that [the court] thoroughly understood" the particularly high stakes of war criticism.

It was particularly relevant that Rhodes was a radio host, and so she spoke extemporaneously, employing words like "torture" in the colloquial meaning, Handman added. The appeals court, like the district judge who first dismissed the case, found that Rhodes had frequently expressed herself not using "actual facts" but through hyperbole — a protected form of speech.

The Reporters Committee was one of 15 groups, mainly from the news media, to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, CACI v. Rhodes.

In its $11 million defamation suit, CACI targeted 13 separate statements Rhodes had made variously alleging that the contractors had committed rape, torture and murder at Abu Ghraib. CACI claimed Rhodes spoke with reckless disregard for the truth.

A district court judge disagreed and dismissed the suit, finding that her words either were not "demonstrably false," or were spoken without actual malice. The appellate court backed up the trial judge, deeming each of Rhodes’s 13 statements constitutionally protected.

"Rhodes’s criticism of CACI’s role and conduct was unbridled, caustic, and indignant," Judge M. Blane Michael wrote. But the right to speak freely is an "essential privilege" that "minimizes the danger of self-censorship on the part of those who would criticize, thus allowing robust debate about the actions of public officials and public figures (including military contractors such as CACI) who are conducting the country’s business."