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Miami judge dismisses former Senate candidate's libel suit against two Fla. newspapers

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A Florida judge has dismissed a former U.S. Senate candidate's libel suit against the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami…

A Florida judge has dismissed a former U.S. Senate candidate's libel suit against the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald.

Millionaire Jeff Greene, who ran in Florida's Democratic Senate primary contest in 2010, sued the papers over three articles – containing 22 allegedly libelous statements – published in the weeks leading up to the election, according to the court order dismissing his claims. Greene claimed the articles damaged his real estate career and hurt his political campaign so severely that he fell from a "comfortable lead" to lose the election by 26 percentage points.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Valeria Manno-Schurr dismissed the claims, ruling that two of the articles were not capable of carrying a defamatory meaning. She also ruled that Greene had failed to allege that any factual inaccuracies in a third article were made with actual malice, meaning that false statements were made intentionally or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity. Judge Manno-Schurr held that, as a candidate for office at the time the articles were printed, Greene was a public figure for First Amendment purposes.

"The opinion made incorrect statements of law, incorrect statements of fact, and had no legal analysis," said Lin Wood, an Atlanta-based lawyer who represents Greene. "Florida deserves better than this" from its courts, he said.

Greene claimed that the three articles falsely connected him with a broad range of unsavory, lurid, and potentially criminal conduct. The first article reported an investigation into real estate sales in California, which Greene claimed falsely conveyed to readers that he was complicit in large scale mortgage fraud. Greene claimed to have provided to the papers – prior to publication of the article – documentation proving that he was not involved in any fraudulent or criminal activity. The judge dismissed the claims based on this article because Greene failed to allege that the papers acted with actual malice, but will allow Greene to amend his complaint.

But the parties never disputed Greene's status as a public figure, and Greene pleaded 20 paragraphs alleging actual malice, Wood said.

The judge dismissed all claims arising out of the second article, which was an editorial published in the St. Petersburg Times, on the basis that the piece was "pure opinion," and was therefore constitutionally protected. Wood believes that the judge made an incorrect legal analysis of this article, failing to discuss relevant Supreme Court precedent on when statements of opinion may be protected.

The third article that Greene said was libelous discussed a story told by former boxer and world heavy weight champion Mike Tyson, a friend and best man at Greene's wedding. The article discussed Tyson's drug use and "possible criminal behavior" while onboard "Summerwind," Greene's yacht, according to the opinion. Because this article did not accuse Greene of engaging in or witnessing any illegal conduct, it was legally incapable of a defamatory meaning, the judge ruled.

This article, included in the 360-plus page complaint, draws on an interview Tyson gave to Sports Illustrated, in which he describes heavy drug use and sexual bacchanals in Amsterdam. Wood says that the article falsely implied that Greene was aware of or involved in these activities, and that they occurred on his boat. In the complaint, Greene alleged that none of Tyson's activities occurred on the "Summerwind," and even if they had, Greene had no knowledge of them.

Wood plans to appeal the decision. Attorneys for the Times and the Herald could not be reached.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Identification — Harm — Fault (public officials vs. private figures)

· The First Amendment Handbook: Defenses — Anti-SLAPP statutes