A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed a former Liberian rebel leader's defamation claim against The Atlantic under the District's anti-SLAPP law Tuesday, rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that the statute did not apply in federal court.
District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that George Boley had filed the type of claim – targeted at speech on a matter of public interest, and unlikely to succeed in any event – that the anti-SLAPP law was designed to discourage.
Boley, who led the rebel group Liberia Peace Council during the country's civil war in the 1990s, sued reporter Jeffrey Goldberg and the Atlantic Monthly Group for two articles published on The Atlantic's website in 2010 that described Boley as a "warlord." Goldberg called Boley “evil” and accused him of a range of crimes, including recruiting and arming child soldiers.
Constance Pendleton, a lawyer for Goldberg and Atlantic Monthly Group, called the judge's decision “groundbreaking.”
“It’s the first time a D.C. federal court has dismissed a libel suit based solely on the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act,” she said.
The District's Anti-SLAPP Act, named for the acronym of "strategic lawsuits against public participation," went into effect in 2011 and is intended to ward off meritless claims that try to intimidate journalists and others speakers.
Walton found that Goldberg's allegations of criminal conduct on Boley's part were protected by the fair report and fair comment privileges, and Boley could not win damages over the word "evil" because it was an unverifiable opinion. He also ruled that the "warlord" statements did not appear to false or made with actual malice.
Walton also wrote that Boley "cherry-picked" Goldberg's comments and took them out of context.
Judges in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia have openly disagreed with each other over whether, or under what circumstances, they can apply the Anti-SLAPP statute.
“It’s a new law, and the judges are taking their own approaches,” said Micah Ratner, another lawyer who represented Goldberg and Atlantic Monthly Group. “Without a definitive ruling from the D.C. Circuit, I think that each federal district judge is interpreting it in his or her own way.”
Last year, in 3M Co. v. Boulter, another D.C. district judge ruled that the Anti-SLAPP law cannot be applied in federal court. Walton, however, rejected this conclusion, citing cases from the First, Fifth and Ninth Circuits.
Pendleton said that although Ninth Circuit precedent allows state anti-SLAPP laws to be applied in federal court, that could change if the court agrees to reconsider a case it decided in April. If the Ninth Circuit or another federal appeals court turns against federal application of anti-SLAPP statutes, she said, it would create a conflict among the circuits that might lead to a Supreme Court case.
The Boley case is not the first time a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has granted a motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP law. In Farah v. Esquire Magazine, which is currently on appeal, the court dismissed a lawsuit under both the anti-SLAPP law and a court rule that allows courts to dispense with complaints that fail to state a sufficient claim.
While both the anti-SLAPP law and Rule 12(b)(6) are tools for speakers to fend off meritless defamation claims, Ratner said that the anti-SLAPP law has special advantages for defendants. The statute allows defendants to seek to recover their legal costs, and it calls on judges to decide quickly on motions to dismiss.
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