The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) in late August reinstated a defamation suit filed by televangelist Rev. Frederick Price against ABC and former “20/20” correspondent John Stossel, finding a lower court’s dismissal of the case to be premature, according to court documents.
A clip from one of Price’s sermons in which he appears to boast to his congregation about owning a 25-room mansion, $6 million yacht and other luxury possessions was broadcast during a 2007 episode of ABC’s “20/20” that focused on wealthy preachers. The clip, however, was “indisputably broadcast out of context” from Price’s hypothetical description of a wealthy, yet spiritually unfulfilled character, the court said.
ABC published an apology and retraction but Price sought compensation, alleging defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A federal district court dismissed the case under California’s anti-SLAPP laws because it found the clip to be “substantially true,” finding that Price has wealth comparable to that of the clip’s hypothetical subject and has been known to speak openly about it.
On appeal, however, the higher court found that it may still be possible for Price to prove the publication of the clip is false, and, therefore, defamatory. Removing the clip from its original context, the court argued, “materially changed the meaning of Price’s words.”
“From our perspective, because it reaffirms the Masson v. New Yorker principal that when you take a quote out of context and there’s a material difference between the quote as made and the quote as presented, then there is potential liability and it constitutes actionable defamation,” said Anthony Glassman, co-counsel for Price.
The distinction between the two courts’ decisions resides in the application of precedent set in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., which established that direct quotations are more authoritative and credible than descriptive passages. In application to Price’s case, the appellate court argued that the accuracy of the clip’s broadcast must be compared “with the meaning of Price’s own words in the context of the sermon he actually delivered.”
“If you take something out of context, you can defame something just as easily as if you make up the words yourself,” said Robert Olson, an attorney representing Price. Price’s counsel has also raised the issue of whether the anti-SLAPP statutes are properly applied in federal court where, as Glassman explained, there are inconsistencies around the country in regard to whether anti-SLAPP statutes are procedural or substantive.
The higher court, which only addressed the issue of falsity in its ruling, affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of a claim of implied defamation because Price could not prove that ABC’s report implied he had been involved in criminal conduct. No date has been set for the case’s return to district court.