William Hoeper, a former pilot for Air Wisconsin Airlines, sued his former employer for defamation after employees from the regional airline notified Transportation Security Administration officials of their concerns about Mr. Hoeper’s “mental stability” following a failed proficiency flight training test. Hoeper ultimately won a $1.4 million state-law defamation judgment which was ultimately affirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court, even though a federal statute exempts such reports to the TSA unless they are made with “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.
In support of the airline’s petition for review from the U.S. Supreme Court, we argued that appellate reviews of false statements in defamation cases should be conducted with the same independent review as courts exercise regarding the issue of actual malice. Since both elements are interrelated in defamation law, both issues should be subject to equivalent standards of appellate review. Appellate court scrutiny of issues of actual malice and falsity in defamation cases ensures a strong buffer zone of First Amendment protections for speech on matters of public concern.