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Scientology defamation lawsuit against Time magazine dismissed

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From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

A federal appellate court upheld Time magazine’s portrayal of the Church of Scientology as “Mafia-like” because the reporter conducted a standard investigation before writing an article critical of the church.

In affirming a district court dismissal, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) agreed that reporter Richard Behar did not write the article “Scientology: The Cult of Greed” with reckless disregard for the truth. In researching the article, Behar claimed Time “conducted more than 150 interviews and reviewed hundreds of court records and internal Scientology documents,” although Scientology officials refused to be interviewed.

The appellate court said on Jan. 12 that Behar’s extensive investigation — including interviews, affidavits, and published articles — was adequate to establish a lack 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.

In the May 1991 article, Behar wrote: “The Church of Scientology, started by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard to ‘clear’ people of unhappiness, portrays itself as a religion. In reality the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”

The article also claimed that the Church of Scientology was a front for financial scams and was intent on bilking new adherents, people whom Hubbard called “raw meat,” for as much money as possible. Behar quoted people who claimed Scientologists wiretapped their hotel room. The article also suggested that the Church of Scientology profited from unlawful financial dealings on the Vancouver Stock Exchange through its members Kurt, Joseph and Matthew Feshbech, who reportedly donated more than $1 million to the organization.

The church sued Behar, Time and Time-Warner for libel in U.S. District Court in New York after the article was published. In November 1992, the district court granted the motion to dismiss in part, finding that some of the statements complained of could not be read as referring to the church. To succeed in a claim of defamation, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s statements sufficiently identify him; that is, the statements are “of and concerning” the plaintiff.

After two-and-a-half years of discovery, the district court then granted summary judgment for the defendants regarding all of the remaining statements because they were not made with actual malice.

Where a defamation plaintiff is a public official or figure — a fact the church conceded — it must prove that the defendant made the allegedly defamatory statements with actual malice; that is, knowing they were false or with a reckless disregard of the truth. Actual malice can be proven by showing the defendant made the statements harboring serious doubts about their truth.

To demonstrate actual malice, the church argued that Behar was biased and that his 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.” Noting Time‘s extensive investigation, the appellate court also disagreed with the church’s argument.

In addition, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that one statement was dismissed based on 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 tying the organization to irregularities in the Vancouver Stock Exchange were properly dismissed under the subsidiary meaning doctrine.

“The 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,'” the court said.

The appellate court did not discuss the issue of whether the statements were “of and concerning” the Church of Scientology. –DB

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