Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trump supporter vs. MSNBC's Joy Reid heats up for round 2, following reversal on free speech issues

It looks like the two-year-old defamation case by Trump supporter Roslyn La Liberte against MSNBC personality Joy Reid is about to heat up.

Racial Slurs and Other Not-So-Pleasantries

Eponymous host of MSNBC's ReidOut and "one of the few Black women to anchor a major American evening news program," Joy Reid has stirred up her share of schismatic controversy (e.g., "series of homophobic blog posts" (Glenn Greenwald), "casual Islamophobia" (Erik Wemple (pay wall))).  In June and July, on Twitter and Instagram, Reid called out MAGA-hat-bearing Roslyn La Liberte at a Simi Valley, California, City Council meeting (La Liberte at 4:17:45 to 4:19:57) for, as alleged in La Liberte's complaint, "yelling racial slurs at a minor," including that he would "'be the first deported ... dirty Mexican!,'" and "making ... racist statements and ... being racist."

A well circulated image of La Liberte and the 14-year-old boy at the council meeting, showing La Liberte mocking being choked but not actually talking to the boy, lent credence to Reid's characterization and its viral duplication.  Trolling responses came fast and furious in the Twittersphere and via email to La Liberte, the latter along the lines, "'You are a dirty white woman b***h,'" and "'I’m glad everyone in the entire world knows what a racist piece of s**t you are f**k you a*****e'" (asterisks in complaint).

However, La Liberte denied yelling racial slurs, and her story is backed up by the youth himself.  He described their exchange as "civil."  At least once during the meeting, a racial slur was directed at the boy, his mother said, but it wasn't uttered by La Liberte.  Cited in the complaint, Fox 11 L.A. untangled the story (June 29, 2018).

 

'Racist,' as a Matter of Fact

La Liberte sued Reid in the Eastern District of New York on a single count of defamation.  Alleging defamation per se, La Liberte in the complaint asserted, "Accusations of racist conduct are libelous on their face without resort to additional facts, and, as proven by this case, subject the accused to ridicule, hate, and embarrassment."

That point alone, on the merits, is interesting.  When I made a similar claim many years ago, colleagues and observers told me that an accusation of racism is opinion only, devoid of fact and incapable of defamatory meaning, even if one were asked to resign one's job as a result of the accusation.  Other colleagues, whose counsel I favor, disagreed and asserted that accusing an academic of racism is akin to accusing a youth coach of a child sex offense, in that the claim will persist indefinitely if one does not powerfully contest it.  Distinction between an individual's "racism," and "institutional" or "systemic" racism might complicate the legal analysis, but popular culture has pondered that distinction only recently.

Anti-SLAPP as the Sword of Goliath

A second compelling issue in the La Liberte case is the operation of anti-SLAPP law.  Anti-SLAPP laws, which vary in their particulars across the states, typically allow a defendant to attain fast dismissal of a lawsuit that is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," that is, a lawsuit through which the plaintiff means to use tort law to suppress the defendant's exercise of civil rights, such as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition.  

That sounds good, but problems with anti-SLAPP law are legion.  One big problem is that American defamation law already tilts wildly in favor of defendants, a First Amendment prophylaxis gone corybantic, such that plaintiffs cannot usually get anywhere near the requisite burden of proof without the benefit of discovery.  Anti-SLAPP procedure allows the defendant to terminate the case before discovery can even happen.  

Joy Reid (Luke Harold CC0 1.0)
Designed in principle to protect, for paradigmatic example, a grassroots environmental campaign against the might of an unscrupulous real estate developer, anti-SLAPP in reality is more often deployed by the Goliaths of the latter ilk against Davidic pursuers.  Anti-SLAPP (ab)users include President Trump, Bill Cosby, and Big Media.  No wonder anti-SLAPP is the darling of the media defense bar.  The sad thing is that it's convinced the nonprofit media advocacy crowd to play along.

The proliferation of anti-SLAPP laws at the state level has generated a circuit split over what to do with them when a defamation case lands in federal court on diversity jurisdiction.  The analysis boils down to whether anti-SLAPP law is procedural, in which case it may not override federal rules, or substantive, in which case the federal court must apply the law of the state that governs the case.  The last couple of years have seen the emergence of a circuit split on the question, though the most recent precedents (2d, 5th, 11th, D.C. Circuits, contra 1st, 9th Circuits) point to the procedural conclusion, with which I agree.  

As a result, defamation cases that would have been smothered at birth in state court are given a chance to gasp for air in federal court.  Meanwhile, media advocates, including John Oliver—with whom I am loath to disagree, but he just doesn't get it—have been pushing hard for federal anti-SLAPP legislation.  A bill is pending in Congress, and with left-wing media advocates and right-wing mega-corporations on the same side, David's death blow might be but weeks away.

La Liberte arose amid this anti-SLAPP circuit split and was, in fact, the occasion on which the Second Circuit joined the recent majority trend.  The court reasoned that the California anti-SLAPP procedure, the defamation having occurred in California, is incompatible with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56, governing motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures and the Involuntarily Infamous

La Liberte at the
City Council meeting
Also while the case rested with the Second Circuit, the court reversed the trial court on one more issue, the erroneous classification of La Liberte as a limited-purpose public figure.  That classification would compel La Liberte to prove the often fatal-in-fact fault standard "actual malice," that Reid knew her statements were false or was reckless with regard to their truth or falsity.  

La Liberte had not pleaded actual malice.  And, according to the court, her activism in speaking at city council meetings did not convert her from a private figure to a public figure.  La Liberte was never singled out in news coverage, the court observed, until after the alleged defamation catapulted her to public attention.  A defendant who is responsible for making a plaintiff infamous cannot thereafter escape liability by characterizing the plaintiff as a public figure.  

Incidentally, it's typically ironic that the media defendant here, Reid, purported to defend her free speech with the anti-SLAPP law while seeking to use the First Amendment-protected petitioning of the city council of the plaintiff, La Liberte, to defeat her effort to protect her reputation.

Enter 'the Lawyer for the Damned'

After remand to the Eastern District of New York, La Liberte terminated her representation by Wade, Grunberg & Wilson.  WG&W is a self-described "boutique firm" in Atlanta that boasts of a plaintiff's defamation practice, not a common thing, but maybe a growth area in our polarized post-truth society.  "The law of defamation is nuanced, peppered with landmines under the First Amendment, Anti-SLAPP Statutes, absolute immunities, and qualified privileges," WG&W writes on its website. "We know where those landmines are and, more importantly, how to navigate successfully around them."  WG&W notified the court of its withdrawal on September 28, 2020.

Wood, 2011 (Gage
Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0)
The reason I suspect the case might now heat up, or at least jump on the express train to settlement town, is that on October 5, 2020, L. Lin Wood entered his appearance for the plaintiff.  Wood already had signed on some of the court papers, but he seems now to be stepping front and center.  Wood's breakthrough claim to fame was representing Richard Jewell, the man wrongly accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (there's a 2019 movie directed by Clint Eastwood).  His subsequent client list includes JonBenét Ramsey's parents, Gary Condit, Herman Cain, Elon Musk, and the Catholic high school student in the 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Nick Sandmann, as against The Washington Post.  Wood boasts that CBS news personality Dan Rather tagged him, "the lawyer for the damned."

The case is La Liberte v. Reid, No. 1:18-cv-05398 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), reversed and remanded by No. 19-3574 (2d Cir. July 15, 2020).  I've not mentioned an ISP immunity issue in the case, on which the Second Circuit affirmed in favor of the plaintiff; read more by Eric Goldman (July 30, 2020).

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