Showing posts with label slander. Show all posts
Showing posts with label slander. Show all posts

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Court: Pseudonymous WeChat user cannot be libeled

As matter of law, statement is not 'of and concerning' plaintiff

Statements about a person on a social media platform are not defamatory as a matter of law when the person is known only by a pseudonym, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held this week.

Defendant and plaintiff exchanged spiteful messages in a WeChat group.  The group comprised 437 persons and was organized to support plaintiffs accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants in admission.  The defendant referred to the existence of "pink-news" about the plaintiff.  As the court explained the term, "'pink-news' is a Chinese expression that refers to sex gossip or rumors."

The trial court awarded judgment for the defendant on the pleadings on the alternative grounds that the plaintiff had failed to show damages, or that the allegation of "pink-news" was "imaginative expression" or "rhetorical hyperbole," not a factual assertion capable of defamatory meaning.

The Appeals Court affirmed on different grounds.  Plaintiff had been known in the chat group only by a pseudonym.  She failed to allege that anyone in the group knew her identity.  So she could not prove that the statement in question was "of and concerning" the plaintiff, as the test for defamation requires.

The Appeals Court disavowed the grounds of decision in the trial court.  The court's discussion of the "pink-news" issue suggested that there might have been some factual question about the meaning of the term as to preclude judgment on the pleadings.  And in a footnote, the court wrote that written communication in WeChat probably is libel, not slander, so would entitle a plaintiff at least to nominal damages under Massachusetts law.

Probably the "pink-news" allegation later would have failed for the reason the trial court supposed, even if further factual investigation was warranted.  Courts in a number of cases have recognized the hyperbolic nature of social media posts.  In 2018, recognition of "hyperbole" cost "Stormy Daniels" Stephanie Clifford her claim against Donald Trump for his tweet accusing her of a "con job."  In 2019, Elon Musk successfully defended a tweet in which he had referred to the plaintiff as "pedo guy."

At the same time, this anything-goes approach to social media means, for better and worse, that tort law cannot be relied on as a social media regulator in our age of coarsening discourse.

The case is Li v. Zeng, No. AC 19-P-1546 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 3, 2020).  The opinion was authored by Justice James R. Milkey for a unanimous panel that also comprised Justice Wendlandt and Chief Justice Green.

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).

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.