Articles Posted in First Amendment

Well-known climate scientist Michael Mann made good on his threat to sue the National Review and columnist Mark Steyn for defamation based on statements made online questioning Mann’s global warming research. In response, the defendants filed a special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute, arguing that the online statements were made in furtherance of the right of advocacy on an issue of public interest. The court found that the anti-SLAPP statute did apply but nevertheless denied the motion.

Mann is a professor of meteorology and the Director of the Early System Science Center at Penn State. He is well known for his research on global warming and has published papers and books on the subject. The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) exchanged emails with Mann which were later misappropriated. In one email, a CRU scientist referred to Mann’s “nature trick” of adding in real temperatures for the last twenty years and from 1961 to “hide the decline.” Upon discovery of the emails, the University of East Anglia investigated the matter and concluded that the honesty and rigor of the CRU scientists was not in doubt but that the email referencing Mann’s “nature trick” was misleading.

In 2010, Penn State initiated an investigation of Mann and the CRU emails. The investigatory committee was comprised entirely of Penn State faculty members. Based on an interview with Mann, the committee cleared Mann of three of four charges against him. The last charge involved an allegation that Mann’s research might deviate Mann.jpgfrom accepted norms. The committee interviewed an MIT professor who was critical of Mann’s work and later expressed dismay with the scope of the investigation and the committee’s analysis of the CRU emails.

Many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, follow the old common law rule that equity will not enjoin a libel. The First Amendment carries a presumption against prior restraints, but does not pose an absolute bar to injunctive relief in defamation actions. Still, most courts are extremely reluctant to grant equitable relief in actions for libel, slander, invasion of privacy, and related actions, due in no small part to the fact that money damages are usually adequate to compensate the plaintiff.

Recently, in Pennsylvania, Dr. Steven R. Graboff, a board certified orthopaedic surgeon and expert witness, tried unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction against the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), requiring them to remove from their website an article that portrayed him in a false light. In an earlier action, Graboff had sued for false light invasion of privacy based on the offending article and a jury awarded him $196,000 in economic and non-economic damages. After the lawsuit, however, AAOS refused to take down the article. So Dr. Graboff sued them again, alleging “continued tortious conduct.”

He sought an injunction as well as additional compensatory and punitive damages, claiming AAOS intentionally and maliciously disregarded his rights by keeping the harmful article on the website in willful disregard of the earlier judgment. AAOS moved to dismiss this new action on several grounds.

Jane Perez hired Dietz Development to repair her townhome. When Perez became dissatisfied with Dietz’s performance, she fired Dietz and posted negative online reviews on both Yelp and Angie’s List. Her comments not only expressed her dissatisfaction with Dietz’s work but also implied that Dietz was responsible for some jewelry missing from Perez’s home. Dietz sued Perez for defamation in Fairfax County Circuit Court and requested a preliminary injunction ordering her to remove the statements.

Perez opposed the injunction but apparently did not argue that an injunction would be an impermissible “prior restraint” under the First Amendment. The trial judge gave Dietz a partial victory, enjoining any discussion of the missing jewelry and ordering Perez to delete certain misleading statements she had made about a related lawsuit. Perez filed a motion for reconsideration in which she raised the prior-restraint issue, and appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia shortly thereafter. Remarkably, the Supreme Court vacated the injunction just two days after the petition for appeal was filed and without even giving Dietz an opportunity to respond.

The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech unless publication would threaten an interest more fundamental than the First Amendment itself. Perez argued that Dietz’s reputation as a businessman in the community does not rise to that level of importance. She also argued that although some jurisdictions allow an Yelp.jpginjunction against comments that have been found false and defamatory after a full trial, injunctions against speech that has not been found to be false and defamatory are never appropriate.

Former Georgia State Director for Rural Development, Shirley Sherrod, filed a defamation action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against bloggers Andrew Breitbart and Larry O’Connor based on a blog post allegedly portraying her as racist. The court denied defendants’ special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP Act. Defendants appealed, and the case is now pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

The district court cited three reasons for its dismissal. First, it found that entertaining defendants’ motion would require retroactive application of the anti-SLAPP statute as Sherrod filed her complaint on February 11, 2011 and the D.C. anti-SLAPP Act did not become effective until March 31, 2011. Typically, only statutes that are purely procedural in nature can be applied retroactively, and the court held that the Act is substantive (or has substantive consequences). Defendants argue that whether the statute only applies to actions filed after its effective date is an issue of first impression, and summary disposition of a case of first impression involving a newly enacted statue that protects important First Amendment rights is not appropriate.

The district court found that even if the statute were purely procedural, the Erie doctrine, which requires federal courts sitting in diversity to apply state substantive law and federal procedural law, bars its application in federal court. Finally, the district court held that even if defendants could show that the statute is both retroactive and slap.pngapplicable in federal court, the plain language of the statute bars the motion to dismiss–the statute provides that a party may file a special motion to dismiss within 45 days after service of the claim, and here, the motion was filed more than two weeks after the 45 days had passed.

Libel and slander claims depend to a large extent on whom the plaintiff targeted with the allegedly defamatory statement. Defamatory words may not support a cause of action unless they directly or inferentially refer to the plaintiff–this has come to be known as the “of and concerning” test. The defamation case filed against former Governor Eliot Spitzer and Slate Magazine Slate for a column Mr. Spitzer wrote in 2010 about an insurance bid-rigging scandal was recently dismissed by a New York court on the ground that the article did not sufficiently identify the plaintiff–a former insurance executive at Marsh & McLennan–as the subject of the statements.

William Gilman’s work for Marsh included negotiating “contingent commissions”–fees paid by insurers to insurance brokers who place insurance business with the insurer. As attorney general, Spitzer took the position that Marsh’s use of such commissions was illegal. A lawsuit ensued and Gilman was convicted of one count of restraint of trade and competition. While Gilman’s appeal was pending, the trial judge vacated his conviction because exculpatory evidence had not been disclosed during trial. Spitzer wrote an article published on Slate.com in response to a Wall Street Journal article criticizing his handling of the Marsh case. Gilman brought a claim for defamation against Spitzer and Slate based on statements in Spitzer’s article.

Gilman’s defamation claim was based on (1) a reference to “the many employees of Marsh who have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms” and (2) the statement that Marsh’s employees “pocketed … increased fees and kickbacks.” Defendants argued that neither of the challenged statements was “of and concerning” Gilman and therefore could not be defamatory.

Freedom of speech is not without limitations. Under the “fighting words” exception, speech is unprotected if it tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace (i.e., it is inherently likely to provoke a violent reaction). Virginia is one of few states that has essentially codified the fighting words doctrine. Its “insulting words” statute is found at Section 8.01-45 of the Virginia Code.

The insulting words statute was first passed as part of the 1810 Anti-Dueling Act. The Anti-Dueling Act provided that “All words which, from their usual construction and common acceptation, are construed as insults, and tend to violence and breach of the peace, shall be actionable.” Today, over 200 years later, the language of the statute is virtually unchanged. Times have changed, but Virginia law still prohibits the utterance of words that are so insulting and offensive that the average person, upon hearing them, is likely to react with violence. Insulting-words jurisprudence has evolved over the years as a form of defamation law.

To recover in a private lawsuit brought under § 8.01-45, the words used must not only be insults, but they must be fighting words that “tend to violence and breach of the peace.” The United States Supreme Court has defined fighting words as “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a duel.jpgmatter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 20 (1971). The Supreme Court later expanded the definition by clarifying that provocation of “immediate” or “imminent” violence was required before mere insults could fall outside the protection of the First Amendment. N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 928 (1982).

The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously on the Internet, but that right is not absolute. Defamatory statements, in particular, are not protected. Freedom of speech does not include the right to commit libel or other torts anonymously. As demonstrated by a new case filed in Henrico County Circuit Court, however, not everyone agrees on the extent to which an online review can go before a poster’s identity must be revealed.

Armando Soto is a plastic surgeon in Orlando, Florida. A former patient, unhappy with the results of a breast augmentation procedure, posted negative comments about Dr. Soto on www.RateMDs.com. The comments included statements that scars were “horrific,” “frightening and unnecessary,” that breasts were “uneven,” that Dr. Soto charged for procedures that he did not perform, and that he is not skilled or caring.

The online comments were posted anonymously, so Dr. Soto filed a “John Doe” action and subpoenaed Internet provider Comcast for records revealing his critic’s identity. The anonymous reviewer hired a lawyer and moved to scope.jpgquash the subpoena to protect his identity. (Apparently the allegations are that “John” received breast augmentation surgery, which is why I’m referring to “his” identity).

Christian minister and hard-rocker Bradlee Dean and his non-profit foundation, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International (YCR), brought a defamation suit against liberal talk show host and commentator Rachel Maddow for comments Maddow made on The Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow is hitting back hard, filing a motion to dismiss under the District of Columbia’s relatively new anti-SLAPP Act. If Maddow’s motion is successful, Dean’s defamation case will not only be dismissed with prejudice, but Maddow will be entitled to recovery of her attorneys’ fees.

The complaint alleges that Maddow disparaged Dean’s physical appearance, first name, profession, and standing in the community and represented that he and YCR advocate the execution of homosexuals. In her commentary (excerpted below), Maddow mentioned that Dean denied having called for the execution of homosexuals, but Dean and YCR contend that Maddow did so begrudgingly and in a way that suggested their denial was disingenuous.

Dean charges Maddow with referring to him as a “bloodthirsty” individual calling for the “upping of the bloodshed in America’s culture wars,” and accusing him of advocating the use of foreign enemies against America because Christians “aren’t doing the job by killing gays and lesbians.” According to the plaintiffs, Maddow’s comments proliferated in the media and led to Dean receiving Internet death threats from gay activists. The plaintiffs contend that Maddow made these comments as a liberal member of the media and lesbian activist in order to harm the presidential campaign of Congresswoman Michelle Bachman to whom Maddow linked Mr. Dean and YCR on several occasions.

Think twice before clicking that Facebook “like” button. You may think you’re expressing a constitutionally protected right to express support for a political candidate, for which you cannot be terminated, but Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the Eastern District of Virginia recently ruled that merely “liking” a candidate on Facebook is not sufficiently substantive to warrant First Amendment protection. Expect this ruling to get appealed.

Sherriff B.J. Roberts of the Hampton Sherriff’s office was up for re-election when he learned that several of his employees were actively supporting one of his opponents, Jim Adams. The employees alleged that Sherriff Roberts learned of their support of Adams because they “liked” Adams’ Facebook page. They also attended a cookout with Adams and told others of their support, but there was no evidence that the Sherriff was aware of these activities. One employee sported a pro-Adams bumper sticker on his car and used choice words to describe the Sherriff’s campaign literature in speaking with a colleague at the election booth.

After winning re-election, Sherriff Roberts did not retain the employees. Sherriff Roberts claimed various benign reasons for the firings, including a reduction in force and unsatisfactory work performance. The employees sued Sherriff Roberts alleging that the firings were in retaliation for exercising their right to free speech and that the Sherriff Like Button.jpghad violated their right to free political association. Sherriff Roberts argued that plaintiffs had not alleged protected speech or political association and that he was entitled to qualified and sovereign immunity even if plaintiffs’ speech was protected.

The First Amendment does not protect the “right” to post anonymous comments online that defame the reputations of others. Libelous statements posted in Internet forums can come back to bite those who post them. In most cases, posters will not be able to conceal their identities once the gears of litigation start grinding. A jury in Texas recently awarded $13.78 million to a couple who were targeted by online posters — one of the highest verdicts ever recorded in Texas for an Internet defamation case.

In 2008, Shannon Coyel sought to divorce her husband and gain custody of her two children. She accused her husband of being a sexual pervert and claimed he had abused their daughter. Mark Lesher, an attorney, and his wife tried to help her with her divorce. The Coyels reconciled, however, and Mrs. Coyel then accused the Leshers and their ranch hand of sexual assault. Moreover, she claimed she had only reported an incident of abuse by her husband against her daughter because the Leshers had drugged her with pills.

The Leshers were indicted as a result of Mrs. Coyel’s sexual assault accusation. They also came under attack on Topix.com with some 25,000 comments, many anonymous, posted about them. They were called molesters, murderers, sexual deviants and drug dealers, and were accused of encouraging pedophilia. The Leshers said the attacks were so laptop.jpgvicious, they had to move out of their town and Mrs. Lesher lost her business, a day spa. Mr. Lesher lost substantial business as well.

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