Showing posts with label actual malice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label actual malice. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

'Seminal' South African defamation case instructs on limited remedial reach of American speech torts

A politician prevailed in defamation against a critic who accused him of nepotism in a South African Supreme Court of Appeal case that a media law expert called "seminal."

Julius Malema in 2011, then a member of the ANC Youth League

Economic Freedom Fighters, a self-described "radical and militant economic emancipation movement" (EFF, definitely not to be confused with the Electronic Frontier Foundation), criticized former South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel of "patently nepotistic and corrupt process" in recommending to public appointment "a dodgy character called Edward Kieswetter, who is not only a relative of Trevor Manuel, but a close business associate and companion."  EFF published its statement on Twitter to 750,000 followers, and EFF leader Julius Malema retweeted the statement to his 2 million followers.

The Gauteng high court ruled the statement defamatory, and the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) affirmed in December 2020, though remanded for reconsideration of the award, 500,000 rand, about US$33,000, because of procedural error.

South African lawyer and scholar Dario Milo, also an English solicitor and expert with the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression project, described the case as the most seminal in South African defamation law in two decades, writing about the case for his blog, Musings on the Media, the Daily Maverick, and The International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) blog.  Important, Milo wrote, was that the court allowed recovery for a genuinely aggrieved plaintiff, even if a public figure, upon a dearth of evidence to support the defendant's defamatory allegation.

Trevor Manuel, when Finance Minister in 2008
Photo by Valter Campanato/ABr CC BY 3.0 BR
According to Milo, the law should not protect the likes of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who weaponized defamation in 15 suits against news media and political commentators, nor of Johnny Depp, whose suit against his ex-wife was recently bounced by English courts.  (Depp's suit resulted in an awkward factual determination that he had beat up his wife, a legal result Milo characterized as an "own goal."  I like that.)  But the genuinely aggrieved, public officials and figures such as Manuel included, deserve their day in court, he maintained.  And the SCA ruling ensures that "dignity" will not be sacrificed even on the altar of political speech.

From an American perspective, the case offers some thought-provoking points of divergence from First Amendment doctrine.  The South African common law of defamation, rooted in English common law, is not so different from the American.  But the American speech-protective doctrine of New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964), justly born of the civil rights era, but, I assert, run amuck since, marked an enduring point of divergence between America and the world.

An important if nuanced divergence arises in the problem of EFF's culpability.  As to the underlying truth of the alleged defamation, EFF was sunk; the defense could not refute Manuel's denial that he is "related" to Kieswetter.  Looking, then, to culpability, the South African court found EFF in utter dereliction of duty.  It had no facts to support the allegation of nepotism and made no effort to ascertain any.

In the United States, the Sullivan rule of "actual malice" would require a plaintiff to prove that the defendant published falsity knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth.  At first blush, that approach might seem compatible with the South African ruling.  But in practice, instructed by a Supreme Court that places a heavy thumb on the scale to favor a defendant's political speech, the rule de facto for American journalists has been that ignorance is bliss.  However much journalism ethics might counsel a duty of investigation, courts have been unwilling to find actual malice without smoking-gun evidence that the defendant had contrary facts within reach and deliberately ignored them.

In recent years, there has been a modest uptick in litigation over alleged actual malice, and I suspect, indeed hope, that that might be a function of a correction.  Recognizing the folly of a de facto bar on defamation suits by persons in politics has undesirable collateral effects, inter alia, deterring political involvement and feeding divisive discourse.  I wonder that American judges, consciously or not, might be increasingly inclined to treat the actual malice standard more as the "recklessness" rule it purports to be.

2019 EFF campaign poster
Photo by DI Scott CC BY-SA 4.0

Another curious takeaway from the South African case is the remedy.  Though the SCA muddied the outcome with its remand on procedural grounds, the court had no substantive objection to high court orders that would raise First Amendment issues.  For in addition to the R500,000 monetary award, the high court ordered that EFF take down its statement and not repeat it subsequently, and that EFF apologize to Manuel.

American thinking about defamation has limited remedies to the reputational-loss proxy of pecuniary award.  First, to "interdict" subsequent speech, to use the South African legal term, goes too far in U.S. remedies, violating the rule against prior restraint—probably.*  There has been some case law lately suggesting that that rule might yield in exceptional circumstances, such as when a destitute or determined defendant cannot pay recompense but has the will and means, especially through readily accessible electronic media, to persist in the defamation.

(*Or probably not. I am kindly reminded that injunction is available now as a defamation remedy in two-thirds of U.S. states.  Professor Eugene Volokh's 2019 publication presently is the truly seminal work in the area; read more, especially the thorough appendices.  Injunctions are variable in kind, for example, preliminary versus post-trial, and the circumstances play into the constitutional analysis.  Regardless, a confluence of legal trends and a changing world seems likely to result in constitutional approval of the injunction remedy in appropriate circumstances. —CORRECTION added Jan. 13.)

Second, a compulsion of apology would unnecessarily abrogate a defendant's right not to speak.  And how genuine an apology might one expect, anyway?  Yet Milo ranked it as important that apology is on the table in South Africa.  For as he observed, a public apology, even if empty of sentiment, is often the symbolic gesture that a defamation plaintiff truly desires, even to the exclusion of financial compensation.

This empirical observation, well established in American legal culture, too, highlights a limitation of the First Amendment system.  Even friend-of-N.Y. Times v. Sullivan Anthony Lewis, in his seminal case biography, recognized criticism of the doctrine in that the Court's rigid constitutionalization of state defamation law foreclosed state experimentation with remedies that might prove more socially desirable and judicially efficient.

I'm not ready to abandon the First Amendment.  But we should accept the invitation of comparative law to be critical of American norms and willing to talk about change.  EFF awaits our RSVP.

The case is Economic Freedom Fighters v. Manuel (711/2019) [2020] ZASCA 172 (17 December 2020) (SAFLII).

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Court: 'Hyperbole,' not slander, in Fox News monolog about Cohen 'catch and kill' payment to protect Trump

McDougal in 2007
(Sam Posten III CC BY-SA 2.0)
A defamation lawsuit by Karen McDougal, former Playboy model and alleged extra-marital consort of President Donald Trump, against Fox News was dismissed last week in federal court in the Southern District of New York.

The case arose in connection with allegations that Trump and lawyer Michael Cohen cooperated with the National Enquirer to "catch and kill," that is pay for and suppress, potentially damaging stories about Trump's personal life.  Relying on allegations in the complaint (citations and notes here omitted), the court summarized the background as favorable to the plaintiff:

Ms. McDougal ... became the subject of front-page stories following the 2016 United States Presidential Election based on allegations that she had engaged in a year-long affair (from 2006-2007) with now-President Trump.

The allegations of an affair arose during the 2018 investigation and guilty plea of Mr. Trump’s lawyer and aide Michael Cohen on charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws. Specifically, law enforcement investigators and the media revealed that in the months leading up to the 2016 election, American Media, Inc. (“AMI”)—the company behind National Enquirer and whose CEO, David Pecker, allegedly is close with the President—had paid Ms. McDougal $150,000 in exchange for the rights to her story about the affair with Mr. Trump. AMI then assigned the rights to the story to a corporate shell entity formed by Mr. Cohen allegedly at Mr. Trump’s direction, and in exchange for the assignment Mr. Cohen paid AMI $125,000.

During the Government’s investigation of these payments, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Pecker both revealed that Mr. Trump had directed the AMI payment to Ms. McDougal in the first place, and then personally reimbursed the payments himself, all as part of an effort to avoid having the allegations affect the 2016 election. Mr. Trump initially had denied knowledge of any payments to McDougal, but by December 2018, had admitted to the payments, arguing that they were made on the advice of Mr. Cohen and that any illegality was Cohen’s fault. Mr. Cohen ultimately was charged with and pleaded guilty to violations of campaign finance laws.

Carlson in 2018 (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)
On Tucker Carlson Tonight, on Fox News, December 10, 2018, Carlson said, as quoted in the court opinion:

"Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed. Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion.

"Yet, for whatever reason, Trump caves to it, and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom. Now, more than two years later, Trump is a felon for doing this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

"Oh, but you're not a federal prosecutor on a political mission. If you were a federal prosecutor on a political mission, you would construe those extortion payments as campaign contributions."
McDougal sued for slander per se over the accusation of extortion.  The court dismissed the case on Thursday on two grounds.  First, the court ruled that Carlson's statements were protected by the First Amendment as hyperbolic comment on politics.  Second, the court ruled that McDougal had failed to plead a case that could meet the high bar of actual malice, i.e., that Carlson knew the assertions to be false or spoke in reckless disregard of truth or falsity.

The case seems soundly decided, though has curious implications for what passes as journalism today.  As Slate observed, the former holding accepts the argument of Fox News that reasonable viewers of Carlson's show are "in on the gag[:] ... [that] Carlson is not 'stating actual facts' but simply engaging in 'non-literal commentary'[;] ... that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism' about the statements he makes."  The court concluded, "Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as 'exaggeration,' 'non-literal commentary,' or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same—the statements are not actionable."

The case is McDougal v. Fox News Network, LLC, No. 1:19-cv-11161 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 24, 2020).  The case was decided by U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, a New York City corporate litigator whom President Trump appointed to the bench.  For the related subject of "catch and kill," I added links to McDougal under the Clifford cases at the Trump Litigation SeminarRead more about Tucker Carlson in the Columbia Journalism Review (Sept. 5, 2018).

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Court greats both cautioned us on NYT v. Sullivan

I'm indebted to Trump Litigation Seminar student Kevin Burchill, who timely unearthed this interview with the late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia by journalist and journalism professor Marvin Kalb.  From the cue linked below (at 21:42, for six or so minutes), they discuss New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964).

 

Nonetheless a First Amendment advocate, I have long shared Justice Scalia's unpopular position that Sullivan was incorrectly decided.  I don't contend that the newspaper should have lost.  In the civil rights context in which the case arose, Sullivan played a critical role in relieving segregationists of state tort law as a weapon.  However, there were many paths to that outcome that did not require the wholesale federalization and constitutionalization of state defamation torts.

The consequences, as suggested even by chapter 19 ("Back to the Drawing Board?") of Anthony Lewis's classic 1991 panegyric and case biography, Make No Law, have been disastrous, because Sullivan undermined the laboratory of common law experimentation in the states.  Today, for example, the "public interest" approach to public-figure defamation in the UK Defamation Act shows great promise as a model to balance the rights of reputation and free speech.  And other countries, such as Australia, seem to be getting along well with much more limited Sullivan-like protection for free speech on public affairs, without the big sky of democracy collapsing across the outback.  Yet we in the United States remain tethered to a near-immunity doctrine born of a bygone era.

RBG (Kalb Report)
In this interview with Kalb, Justices Ginsburg and Scalia characteristically state their opposing positions on the correctness of Sullivan, for and against, respectively.  What I find compelling, though, is that Justice Ginsburg acknowledged Sullivan's unintended problematic consequences.  Sullivan was a product of civil rights exigency, she reiterated.  But, she recognized, its doctrine was tailor-made for a press on the same page of mighty ideals in the mission and ethics of journalism.

What if, say, new technology caused mass media entry barriers to fall?  And then we had a proliferation of partisan pundits, or even disinformation, pouring through our information flows?  If Sullivan were then not up to the job, we might find our hands tied by unyielding constitutional cable.  We might flail, helpless, in trying to restore integrity to the democratic space.

Perish the thought.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Anti-SLAPP slaps justice, but Richard Simmons survives dismissal in privacy suit over tracking device

Sensational Simmons in 2011
(Angela George CC BY-SA 3.0)

In telephone consultation with an attorney-colleague just the other day, I had occasion to climb onto my soapbox and preach my anti-anti-SLAPP gospel.  I'm not sure when he hung up, but I kept preaching, because it's about the message, not the audience.

And then as if to say to me, "you go, girl," Richard Simmons popped up in my newsfeed.  More on that in a minute.

'Anti-SLAPP'

Anti-SLAPP is a mostly statutory court procedure meant to diffuse "strategic lawsuits against public participation," that is, essentially, to dispose quickly of lawsuits that are meant principally to harass a defendant who is participating in public life in a way protected by the First Amendment, namely, speaking or petitioning.

The prototype case is a land developer who sues environmental protestors for a tort such as interference with contract.  An anti-SLAPP statute allows the protestor-defendant to obtain a quick dismissal, because the plaintiff knows the protestor is not a business competitor, and the plaintiff's true aim is harassment via tort litigation.  Anti-SLAPP may be useful if, say, and I'm just spitballing here, you're a sexual assault complainant suing a politician with a habit of counterclaiming for defamation.  But the far more common use of anti-SLAPP motions is when a mass-media defendant is sued for, well, anything.

The communications bar loves anti-SLAPP.  And what's not to love?  What anti-SLAPP statutes demand varies widely across the states.  A defendant's anti-SLAPP motion might require only that the plaintiff re-submit the complaint under oath, or more aggressive statutes demand that the court hold a prompt hearing and dismiss the complaint if the plaintiff cannot show probability of success on the merits, a stringent pretrial standard reserved usually for preliminary injunctions.  Whatever the statute requires, the universal takeaway is that the blocking motion is good for the defense, providing another way to slow down litigation and require more money, time, and exertion by the plaintiff—who, let's not forget, usually is a victim of injury, even if the injury has not yet been adjudicated to be the fault of the defendant.

My problems with anti-SLAPP are legion, not the least of which is that the communications defense bar hardly needs a new defense at its disposal.  We already have the most overprotective-of-free-speech tort system in the world.   Without diving deep today, it will suffice to say that my opposition to anti-SLAPP fits neatly into my broader position that the famous civil rights-era innovation in First Amendment law embodied in New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) should rather be described as an infamous and pivotal turn down a wrong and dangerous road, which is why courts around the world have widely rejected the case's central holding.  My position makes me about the most despised person at any communications defense bar conference, so I mostly skip the social events, after I've redeemed my free drink tickets.

Along Came Richard Simmons

When I talk about the abusive deployment of anti-SLAPP, I'm usually talking about the plaintiff's inability to prove Sullivan "actual malice," which, as a subjective standard, requires evidence of the defendant's state of mind.  In an especially wicked cruelty, a typical anti-SLAPP motion requires the plaintiff to show likelihood of success in proving defendant's actual-malicious state of mind before the plaintiff is allowed to use litigation discovery to collect evidence—all of which remains in the defendant's possession.

Bastion of the First Amendment
(2015 image by Mike Mozart CC BY 2.0)
So the rules of the game in First Amendment defamation are first rigged against the plaintiff, and then, when the plaintiff dares to complain anyway, we punish the audacity.  Rubbing salt into the wound, anti-SLAPP laws may also then require the plaintiff to pay the corporate media defendant's legal fees, a bankrupting prospect for the everyday-Joe plaintiff who might have been victimized by the careless reporting of a profits-churning transnational news company.

What I don't usually talk about is the kind of thing that apparently happened lately to Richard Simmons.  The once-and-future fitness guru—don't miss Dan Taberski's podcast Missing Richard Simmons (e1), which, however "morally suspect," might be my favorite podcast ever—alleged in a California invasion-of-privacy lawsuit that celebrity gossip rag In Touch Weekly hired someone to put a tracking device on Simmons's car.  As media, do, and maybe now you to start to see the problem, In Touch Weekly asked for dismissal under California's powerful anti-SLAPP statute, putting to the test Simmons's audacious challenge to the shining gold standard of American journalism.

Fortunately in this case, a trial judge, and this week a California court of appeal, held that news-gathering through trespass, or intrusion, is not what anti-SLAPP is made to protect.  Correspondingly, there is no First Amendment defense to the tort of invasion of privacy by intrusion.  So Simmons's case may resist anti-SLAPP dismissal.

Also fortunately, Richard Simmons has the financial resources and determination to fight a strong invasion-of-privacy case all the way through an appeal before even beginning pretrial discovery.  This isn't his first rodeo.  Richard Simmons is a survivor.

Someone needs to give Richard Simmons a law degree, and one day I won't feel so alone at the comm bar cocktail party.

The case is Simmons v. Bauer Media Group USA, LLC, No. B296220 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d App. Dist. 4 Div. May 21, 2020).  Parent-company Bauer Media Group, by the way, owned the gossip magazines that lost to Rebel Wilson in her landmark Australian defamation case.

Now move those buns.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Let's 'open up our libel laws': I'm with Thomas

There's been a blustering rash of hand-wringing in journalism and First Amendment circles over the recent concurrence to cert. denial by Justice Thomas in McKee v. Bill Cosby (SCOTUSblog).  The case would have asked when a victim of sexual assault becomes a limited-purpose public figure after publicizing her allegation.  Based on First Amendment doctrine dating to the 1960s, famously including New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) (Oyez), a limited-purpose public figure must prove actual malice to prevail in a defamation claim.  That's very hard to do.  The First Circuit affirmed dismissal in favor of Cosby. 

"Actual malice"—ill named, as it does not have to do with anger or ill will, which is "common law malice"—is akin to the recklessness standard of tort law.  In a defamation context, "actual malice" is said to mean "knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity."  Supreme Court precedents late in the civil rights era amped up "reckless disregard" so much that for many years, actual malice seemed to be a nearly "fatal in fact" test.

Based only on casual observation, I posit that actual malice's rigor has been weakening in recent years.  Courts have begun to recognize the need to fine tune the balance between reputational and speech rights.  Meanwhile, "actual malice" has had a rough go in the world, even among our fellow human rights-loving western democracies.  Actual malice has been largely rejected as a functional standard for its insufficient protection of reputation as a human right countervailing the freedom of expression.  (My colleague Prof. Kyu Ho Youm paints a different picture.  I deeply admire Prof. Youm, a dear friend, and his work, which I have assigned students to read.  But I sharply disagree with his conclusion on this point.)

In his concurring opinion in McKee, Thomas challenged the constitutional imperative of the actual malice standard, which is so much higher than negligence and strict liability.  His argument was not so narrow, however.  Broadly, he proposed that the Court reconsider the fundamental premise that the the federal Constitution, through the First Amendment, should reshape state tort law, as the Court held it did in the civil rights-era cases.  Thomas is a champion of textualism and originalism, and it must be admitted that the Court's First Amendment doctrine from the latter-20th century is on thin ice in those schools of constitutional interpretation.

This blog, any blog, is far from an adequate venue to tackle this question.  I just want to do my part to raise consciousness of Thomas's proposition, and to dare to say, I agree.  For many years now, I have harbored a deep suspicion of Sullivan and progeny.  In my academic circles, especially in the free speech and civil liberties crowd, I have felt something like a church deacon harboring a dark secret.  No longer; I confess:

Actual malice swung the pendulum way too far in favor of defendants.  I get why, and I appreciate the good intentions.  Sullivan arose against the tragic reality of the Jim Crow South and the potential national crisis precipitated by desegregation.  But even Anthony Lewis, in his definitive book on Sullivan, Make No Law, recognized that the Court's federalization and constitutionalization of state defamation law had the ill effect of freezing the process of common law evolution.  As a result, we have been deprived of the opportunity to experiment with fair and equitable policy alternatives, such as media corrections as a remedy.

I'm not arguing to "open up our libel laws," quite as President Trump proposed.  But I'm with Justice Thomas.  Sullivan is not holy writ.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revenge porn law can survive First Amendment scrutiny by requiring 'actual malice'


Last week a Tyler, Texas, appellate court struck the state’s criminal revenge porn law as fatally overbroad, so facially unconstitutional, under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.  The ruling garnered headlines heralding the unconstitutionality of revenge porn law, which could have big implications in privacy law and policy nationwide—even ramifications for U.S. foreign relations.

However, the court’s ruling was not so broad as headlines have suggested.  In fact, the court gave wise and constructive feedback on what a revenge porn law needs to look like to pass constitutional muster—which it can.  It seems in the end that the Texas law was just not well drafted.  Accordingly, the revenge porn laws that have proliferated in the United States, now in 38 states (collected at Cyber Civil Rights Initiative), should be scrutinized and, if necessary, corrected.  (Constitutional problems with Vermont and Arizona laws were mentioned just today by the U.K. Register, here.)

The Texas case, Ex parte Jones, No. 12-17-00346 (Tex. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2018), involved a criminal information against Jones under Texas Penal Code section 21.16(b), which criminalizes the “unlawful disclosure of intimate visual materials.”  The statute reads:


A person commits an offense if:
  (1) without the effective consent of the depicted person, the person intentionally discloses visual material depicting another person with the person’s intimate parts exposed or engaged in sexual conduct;
  (2) the visual material was obtained by the person or created under circumstances in which the depicted person had a reasonable expectation that the visual material would remain private;
  (3) the disclosure of the visual material causes harm to the depicted person; and
  (4) the disclosure of the visual material reveals the identity of the depicted person in any manner[.]


The statute, section 21.16(a), furthermore defines “visual material” broadly (“any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide or any photographic reproduction that contains or incorporates in any manner any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide,” as well as electronic transmission) and “intimate parts” specifically (““the naked genitals, pubic area, anus, buttocks, or female nipple of a person”).

The court’s First Amendment analysis was sound.  The court applied de novo review to test the constitutionality of a criminal statute.  The court rejected a narrow construction that would confine the law to mere obscenity, as stringently defined by federal precedent.  Because the statute is then a content-based restriction of expressive content, the court charged the government with the burden of rebutting presumptive unconstitutionality.  The State conceded at oral argument that the law must survive strict scrutiny, i.e., advance a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to do so.  Intimate privacy passes muster on the first prong, but the statute facially fails narrow tailoring.  The court acknowledged that overbreadth doctrine is “strong medicine”; nevertheless, the statute could not measure up.

The court illustrated the statute’s fatal flaw with a hypothetical, unattributed so presumably original, that seems drawn from a law school or bar exam:


“Adam and Barbara are in a committed relationship. One evening, in their home, during a moment of passion, Adam asks Barbara if he can take a nude photograph of her. Barbara consents, but before Adam takes the picture, she tells him that he must not show the photograph to anyone else. Adam promises that he will never show the picture to another living soul, and takes a photograph of Barbara in front of a plain, white background with her breasts exposed.

“A few months pass, and Adam and Barbara break up after Adam discovers that Barbara has had an affair. A few weeks later, Adam rediscovers the topless photo he took of Barbara. Feeling angry and betrayed, Adam emails the photo without comment to several of his friends, including Charlie. Charlie never had met Barbara and, therefore, does not recognize her. But he likes the photograph and forwards the email without comment to some of his friends, one of whom, unbeknownst to Charlie, is Barbara’s coworker, Donna. Donna recognizes Barbara and shows the picture to Barbara’s supervisor, who terminates Barbara’s employment.”


“In this scenario,” the court observed, “Adam can be charged under Section 21.16(b), but so can Charlie and Donna.”

Therein lies the problem: not necessarily as applied to Adam, but as applied to Charlie and Donna, who are ignorant of the circumstances under which the photo came to be.  Certainly Charlie, who received the photo from Adam “without comment,” might as well believe that Adam ripped the photo of a stranger from a pornographic website.  However indecent the photo, both Charlie and Donna have a First Amendment right to communicate the photo “downstream.”  Yet without Barbara’s consent, Charlie and Donna run afoul of the revenge porn law.  Given the ease with which persons can share visual images in the age of electronic and online communication, the court found “alarming breadth” in this potential criminalization of expression.  In First Amendment overbreadth doctrine, a facially overbroad criminal law must be ruled unconstitutional even if it might be constitutional as applied to the defendant before the court.

The court distilled the law’s flaws in two dimensions related to culpability.  Typically of a criminal prohibition, the statute requires intent.  But intent pertains only to the republication of the image.  The statute does not require that the actor have “knowledge or reason to know the circumstances surrounding the material’s creation, under which the depicted person’s reasonable expectation of privacy arose.”  Second, the statute does not require “intent to harm the depicted person,” or even knowledge “of the depicted person’s identity.”  Borrowing the language of civil law (meaning common law tort), one would say that the statute requires volitional intent, but not intent to commit a wrong or to cause an injury.

The requisite intent to survive constitutional challenge may be likened to “actual malice,” which is used in both civil and criminal defamation law to describe “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity.”  In the context of revenge porn, a constitutional law might require “actual knowledge of the depicted person’s reasonable and continuing expectation of privacy in the image, or reckless disregard of same.”  If Charlie knew the identity of Barbara, so might infer the circumstances under which the photo had been taken, then the State might at least allege recklessness.  Donna, who did know Barbara’s identity, might be charged.  But she should be entitled to defend upon a qualified privilege, borrowed again from common law defamation, to share information in the interest of a recipient or third party when the defendant should disclose according to general standards of decency.  A corrected statute would hold Adam accountable without a constitutional problem.

Also just last week, the Rhode Island legislature (my home state) passed a revenge porn bill (2018-H 7452A) that has the support of the Governor Gina Raimondo (AP).  Raimondo vetoed a revenge porn bill in 2016, objecting on free speech grounds (Providence Journal).  Her position now is bolstered by the Texas decision in Jones.  Beefing up the intent requirement is precisely one of the R.I. legislative fixes that brought the latest bill to fruition.  The Rhode Island bill requires that the defendant intentionally disseminated, published, or sold “[w]ith knowledge or with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the depicted person will suffer harm, or with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the depicted person.”

I still have qualms about extending the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) standard—which is drawn from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as a bulwark against improper state action—being extended into the realm of private criminal or civil liability.  REP is potentially much broader than the intimate-depiction definitions of revenge porn laws.  And criminalization and civil liability are not the same.  Even though criminal defamation is constitutional when qualified by actual malice, contemporary human rights norms discourage the criminalization of expression at all.

At the same time, I have argued in favor of evolving U.S. law to recognize downstream control of private information, in consonance with both American values in the information age and emerging global legal norms.  Revenge porn laws—as against Adam, to the exclusion of Charlie and Donna—are a modest step in that direction, which European observers will welcome of us.  We will have to remain vigilant to continue to protect freedom of expression in tandem with expanding privacy rights, especially in a time in which the latter at the expense of the former is the fashion.  Conscientious actors such as the Jones panel (Worthen, C.J., and Hoyle and Neeley, JJ.) and Governor Raimondo are doing well, so far.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mass. App. upholds $2.9m 'actual malice' verdict over 'bitter feud' in local politics

The Range Feud (Columbia Pictures 1931)
The Massachusetts Appeals Court today rejected appeal of a defamation verdict.  The case is Van Liew v. Eliopoulos, no. 16-P-567 (soon available from the Reporter of Decisions), per Justice Blake.

The case arose amid what the court described as "a bitter feud ... between Chelmsford residents," focusing on the redevelopment of a historic property.  Plaintiff Eliopoulos was a selectman, real estate attorney, and project developer; defendant Van Liew was a business owner and project opponent.  The latter's vigorous opposition included a newsletter titled, "Why Perjury Matters."  The jury found, and the trial court entered judgment, against the defendant for 29 defamatory statements, to the tune of $2.9m.  The Appeals Court affirmed upon 26 statements.

Because the plaintiff was a public official and public figure, the case occasioned review of some First Amendment basics, namely, the Sullivan (FindLaw) "actual malice" standard and the Bose Corp. (FindLaw) standard of independent appellate review, besides the common law fact-opinion dichotomy.  Actual malice was supported, inter alia, by evidence that the defendant had reiterated charges of unethical conduct knowing that an ethics commission had exonerated the plaintiff.

The jury's damages award comprised $2.5m for reputational injury, $250,000 for emotional distress, and $150,000 in other compensatory damages.  Refusing remittitur, the Appeals Court held the damages sufficiently supported and neither excessive nor punitive.  A real estate broker had "testified that potential real estate buyers and sellers do not want to work with [plaintiff] because 'a lot of folks think that he is a—a corrupt, unethical person, because it's been said hundreds ... of times, over the past few years, in mailings and e-mails to their homes.'"  The Appeals Court opined, "The jury well could have found that the defamation turned [plaintiff] into a pariah in his own community, a status for him that has no end in sight."

Not many years ago, a politician-plaintiff's favorable verdict on actual malice was about as likely as, well not quite a unicorn, but maybe a California condor.  I advised more than one public-figure colleague not to pursue a cause because of cost, emotional toll, and mainly the overwhelming probability of loss under prophylactic free speech rules, all notwithstanding merits.  The "actual malice" standard on its face suggests no more rigor than a thoughtful recklessness analysis, but trial courts seemed to find it, to borrow the sometimes critique of strict scrutiny, "fatal in fact."

The efficacy of that conventional wisdom has been on the wane in recent years, and I welcome the return to fairness.  The $3m defamation verdict against Rolling Stone and its reporter in November  for "Rape on Campus" (NYT) and the Hulk Hogan (Bollea) privacy win against Gawker (settlement in NYT; new Netflix docko in The Atlantic) are high-profile instances of what might be a sea change underway to balance the scales.  Much hand-wringing has attended the President's "open up our libel laws" statement (NYT), and rightly so.  But that doesn't mean that the frustration that propelled Trump into office is wholly ill derived, on this point any less than on jobs and the economy.

The Appeals Court's application of "actual malice" was workaday and workmanlike.  That's the kind of cool rationality we need in our courts, now more than ever.