Libel

This section covers the state law governing libel suits. The standards governing such suits are influenced by many things, including whether the subject of a story is a public figure or public official. This also covers the defenses to libel suits, including the "fair report" privilege, the opinion defense and anti-SLAPP laws.

Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Review v. Mann

August 11, 2014

The Reporters Committee and 26 others filed an amicus brief in the D.C. Court of Appeals. Michael Mann, a climate scientist, has sued various publications, claiming he was defamed by a statement saying he was "the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data." The National Review and CEI filed anti-SLAPP motions, which were denied. The amicus brief argues that denials of a special motion to dismiss under the D.C. anti-SLAPP statute must be  immediately appealable, and that the statements at issue are constitutionally protected opinion and fair comment, particularly given the context in which they appeared.

Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning

July 30, 2014

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning sued seven Yelp reviewers for libel, saying it suspects they were not customers but competitors intentionally lying about the companey. Hadeed subpoenaed Yelp for the reviewers' identities, and Yelp argued that the reviewers' speech was protected by the First Amendment and their identities should not be revealed. The Reporters Committee and 16 others filed an amicus brief in the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that anonymous speech on matters of public concern, especially anonymous commentary on news websites, is vital to public participation and must be protected. The brief further argues that the Virginia unmasking statute must be interpreted robustly, so that a plaintiff is required to provide sufficient evidence to support its claim before it may unmask an anonymous speaker.

10th Circuit reverses dismissal of 'Dateline' defamation case

Bradleigh Chance | Libel | News | July 14, 2014
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July 14, 2014

Last week the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that while NBCUniversal reporters did not violate anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights creating the 2008 Dateline segment titled “Tricks of the Trade,” a lower court will have to review the originally dismissed defamation claims made by an insurance broker featured in the piece.

Tyrone M. Clark and his company, Brokers’ Choice of America, initially sued NBC over video clips recorded with a hidden camera by Dateline crew members during an insurance brokers’ seminar in Colorado located on BCA property.

The reporters worked with Alabama law enforcement to gain access to the event since it was only open to licensed insurance agents, which Clark and BCA claimed to be a Fourth Amendment violation of the company’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

District court rules that Texas anti-SLAPP law applies in federal court

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Libel | News | June 18, 2014
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June 18, 2014

A U.S. District Court in Texas ruled that Texas’ anti-SLAPP law applies in federal courts and then dismissed a defamation claim under that statute.

The district court judge ruled on June 11 that defendants, broadcast companies operating under the name KRIS Communications, could apply the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) to a lawsuit brought by Christopher Williams.

The news organizations released stories on Williams, a teacher accused of criminal acts of a sexual nature with students in several schools. Williams sued for defamation, so the defendants moved to dismiss the case under the TCPA.

District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found that the TCPA did apply to the broadcasters and further ruled that the TCPA can be used in federal courts.

Sixth Circuit: TheDirty.com not liable for user's posts, even when commentary added

Cindy Gierhart | Libel | News | June 17, 2014
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June 17, 2014

Nik Richie, operator of the website TheDirty.com, cannot be held liable for potentially defamatory remarks made by a third-party poster on his website, according to a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling released Monday.

The court reversed a district court ruling that held Richie could be liable because he “encouraged” defamatory statements and then “adopted” the statements by adding his own comments to the posts.

The court describes TheDirty.com as “a user-generated, online tabloid” where users can post gossip about anyone, often private individuals.

New York court adopts standard for defamation by implication

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Libel | News | May 30, 2014
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May 30, 2014

A New York appellate court unanimously upheld a decision protecting a writer of Barron’s, a financial publication run by Dow Jones & Company, against defamation by implication and adopted a new standard for determining when implied facts can be defamatory.

Plaintiff Maxim A. Stepanov, founder of Midland Consult Ltd. and a former Russian diplomat, asserted that statements in Barron’s article, “Crime and Punishment in Putin’s Russia,” were defamatory by implication, meaning they did not directly state falsehoods but implied them.

Stepanov argued that the article implied his company associated with shell companies, drug cartels and weapons dealers, while falsely implying he was a diplomat under Vladimir Putin when he only served under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

D.C. high court allows immediate appeal of denial of anti-SLAPP motion

Kevin Delaney | Libel | News | May 30, 2014
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May 30, 2014

The District of Columbia's high court ruled Thursday that denials of anti-SLAPP motions to quash are immediately appealable, reversing a lower court order that would have forced Wikipedia to disclose data revealing the identity of an anonymous poster to the company’s site.

The case started after Susan L. Burke, a prominent human-rights attorney, filed a lawsuit claiming several anonymous defendants conspired to defame her by making changes to a Wikipedia page devoted to her legal work. Burke requested Wikipedia’s user data in an attempt to uncover the posters’ true identities.

Anatomy of a Brief: Scholz v. Boston Herald

A detailed look at a recent Reporters Committee amicus brief
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Cindy Gierhart

In early May, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the highest court in Massachusetts, weighing in on a central tenet of libel law: opinion.

“Opinion” has a broad meaning in libel law

“Opinion” in libel law can encompass more types of speech than the traditional “opinions” you might think of in everyday speech.

In one sense, opinion in libel law can mean exactly what you think. For example, a columnist writes on the editorial pages of the newspaper that she thinks the city council made a bad decision or laments that the city’s new billboards look gaudy.

These statements are protected because, frankly, people are allowed to have opinions. They cannot be “wrong” because they cannot be proven false.

Rethinking hyperlinking

Linking to source material can help journalists in defamation lawsuits
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Cindy Gierhart

Media scholars have noted for years that news outlets lag significantly behind blogs in their use of hyperlinks. But recent court cases suggest that news media may want to increase their use of hyperlinks as a way of defending against defamation lawsuits.

Three scenarios demonstrate ways that hyperlinks have helped media defendants.

Scenario #1: Facts supporting an opinion

Connecticut court: No liability for linking to defamatory article

Cindy Gierhart | Libel | News | May 15, 2014
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May 15, 2014

A Connecticut appellate court ruled Tuesday that a website is not liable for linking to someone else’s defamatory statements, even if the website endorsed the statements.

In Vazquez v. Buhl, a senior editor for CNBC's web site posted an article online that linked to an article written by Teri Buhl. Buhl's article contained allegedly defamatory statements.

The CNBC editor introduced the linked article by saying, “I don’t want to steal Buhl’s thunder, so click on her report for the big reveal.” The editor titled the CNBC story “The Sex and Money Scandal Rocking Hedge Fund Land” and referred to Buhl as “a veteran financial reporter” who “knows her way around the Connecticut hedge fund beat.”