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Dismissal of Scientology libel claim against Time upheld

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         SECOND CIRCUIT         Libel         Jan 17, 2001    

Dismissal of Scientology libel claim against Time upheld

  • In a 1991 Time magazine article critical of some church practices and members, the reporter’s extensive investigation of the claims was sufficient to defeat defamation claims, a federal appeals court said.

A federal district court’s dismissal of a libel suit filed by the Church of Scientology International against Time magazine was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) on Jan. 12. The court ruled that the statements in the article were not published with actual malice or, in one case, were barred by the “subsidiary meaning doctrine.”

Time published “Scientology: The Cult of Greed,” in May 1991 and claimed that Scientology was ruthless, terroristic, and “Mafia-like.” The article also discussed unethical and illegal activity of individual Scientology members.

CSI sued the author, Richard Behar, Time and Time-Warner for libel. The district court ruled that many of the statements were not “of and concerning” CSI. The remaining statements, the district court held, were not made with actual malice. When CSI conceded it was a public figure, it had to prove the news magazine published the allegedly defamatory statements with knowledge that they were false or with a reckless disregard for the truth.

CSI argued that Behar’s bias clouded his investigation of the organization. The district court held such bias would only be relevant to a showing of an avoidance of truth if coupled with “an extreme departure from standard investigative techniques.”

In upholding the lower court decision, the appellate court ruled that Behar’s extensive investigation, which included interviews, affidavits and published articles, was adequate to defeat a claim of actual malice. Behar’s interviews were with credible sources, who had close ties to Scientology and whom Behar would have no reason to doubt, the court reasoned.

The Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision that one statement was not actionable under the subsidiary meaning doctrine. That doctrine holds that when a published view of a plaintiff is not actionable as libel, other statements made in the same publication are not actionable “if they merely imply the same view, and are simply an outgrowth of and a subsidiary to those claims upon which it has been held that there can be no recovery.” The court held that statements in the article suggesting the organization obtained financing through questionable practices on the “notorious” Vancouver Stock Exchange were properly dismissed under the subsidiary meaning doctrine.

“[T]he district court properly held that the Vancouver Stock Exchange Statement was subsidiary in meaning to the larger thrust of the Article, which asserted that ‘Scientology, rather than being a bona fide religion, is in fact organized for the purpose of making money by means legitimate and illegitimate.'”

(Church of Scientology International v. Behar; Media Counsel: Floyd Abrams, Cahill & Gordon, New York) DB

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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