Articles Posted in Malice

Public officials have an uphill battle when seeking to sue media outlets for defamation. The public has a legitimate interest in the workings of government and reporters have the right and privilege to communicate information about the actions of public officials so that the government can be held accountable. Consequently, the law has evolved to make it difficult for public officials to sue media organizations for libel, even if a news story about them contains inaccuracies. Specifically, public officials can’t prevail in a defamation action based on their official conduct unless they can prove, with clear and convincing evidence, that the false story was published about them with actual malice, generally defined as knowledge of falsity (or, at a minimum, reckless disregard of the truth). Private individuals, by contrast, generally are not required to meet this standard. The high bar for public figures is designed to strike a balance between the private right against unfair attacks on one’s reputation and the First Amendment right of writers and publishers to share information on matters of public interest and concern. A recent decision of the Eastern District of Virginia shows how difficult it can be for public officials to meet their burden of proof.

The case of Joseph E. Preston v. City Council of the City of Petersburg involved a dispute between the City of Petersburg and its former City Attorney, Joseph Preston. The basic facts, according to the summary-judgment opinion, are as follows. Preston was the City Attorney from October 2016 to September 2018. On September 4, 2018, while Preston was on vacation, the City Council held a special meeting in his absence and passed two motions. One motion terminated Preston’s employment, effective immediately. The second motion stated that Preston would be allowed back into City Hall to retrieve his personal belongings “only by appointment and only if accompanied by a police officer.” The reasons for the firing and the restrictions on Preston’s ability to enter City Hall are not clear.

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Actual malice is an important concept in Virginia defamation law. Public figures, public officials, and limited-purpose public figures all must prove that a defamatory publication was made about them with actual malice as part of their case in chief in any defamation action brought on the basis of that publication. Even private plaintiffs often seek to prove actual malice, such as when trying to show that a defendant lost or abused a qualified privilege. As discussed earlier on this blog, “actual malice” in this context means something different than spite or ill will. When a defendant publishes a false and defamatory statement with actual malice, it means the defendant knew the statement was false or, at a minimum, acted with reckless disregard as to truth or falsity. Recklessness amounting to actual malice may be found, for example, where a publisher fabricates an account, makes inherently improbable allegations, relies on a source where there is an obvious reason to doubt its veracity, fails to pursue the most obvious available sources for corroboration, or deliberately ignores evidence that calls into question his published statements.

So how do you prove actual malice? As you might imagine, it’s not very often that the defendant openly admits to intentionally lying. Therefore, most of the time, plaintiffs must resort to indirect and circumstantial evidence to prove their claims. They can do this by using

all the relevant circumstances surrounding the transaction…provided they are not too remote, including threats, prior or subsequent defamations, subsequent statements of the defendant, circumstances indicating the existence of rivalry, ill will, or hostility between the parties, facts tending to show a reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights, and, in an action against a newspaper, custom and usage with respect to the treatment of news items of the nature of the one under consideration.

(See Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153, 164 n.12 (1979) (quoting 50 Am. Jur. 2d Libel and Slander § 455 (1970))). To obtain such evidence in advance of trial, parties may resort to the discovery process, using tools such as interrogatories, requests for production of documents, and third-party document subpoenas.

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Appearances can be deceiving. But in terms of analyzing whether a particular government employee should be treated as a “public official” for purposes of asserting a defamation claim, appearances may make all the difference in whether a plaintiff will be required to show malice or merely negligence. Horne v. WTVR was a case based on a claim of implied defamation that I wrote about back in 2017. As noted in my earlier blog post, the case ended with a directed verdict in favor of WTVR, because the trial court deemed Ms. Horne a public official and found insufficient evidence of malice to justify allowing a jury to consider the claim. Ms. Horne appealed that ruling, and on June 18, 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. In doing so, it elaborated on what it means to be a “public official” in Virginia.

If the plaintiff in a defamation case is a public official, he cannot “recover[] damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’―that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279–80 (1964)). This is significant, because private plaintiffs are only required to establish negligence to succeed on a defamation claim–a much lower threshold.

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Truth is not always a defense to defamation claims in Virginia. Sometimes a statement that is literally true will nevertheless convey an implied message with defamatory meaning. Virginia thus recognizes claims for defamation by implication in addition to claims for libel and slander made expressly. The latest case to illustrate this principle is Cameron M. Jackson v. Liberty University, currently pending in the Western District of Virginia federal court.

The facts, according to the original complaint, are essentially as follows. Cameron Jackson is a former student and football player at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sarah Browning was on the university’s swim team. Jackson and Browning had been involved in a “casual sexual relationship” for several months. At an off-campus party in August 2015, Browning approached several members of the football team (including Jackson) and performed oral sex on them. Later that night, Jackson and Browning engaged in consensual intercourse in the living room of a friend’s apartment, where others could and did see them.

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Suppose you’ve spoken your mind about someone you don’t like and have been accused of defamation. Should you apologize? If you intentionally defamed the character of another person out of ill will or spite, you’re probably not going to want to apologize. But if you’ve either had a change of heart or a sudden realization that you’re about to get sued, there are some good reasons to say you’re sorry.

For one thing, apologizing–if done right–can mitigate the plaintiff’s damages. Plaintiffs who sue for libel or slander in Virginia aren’t just limited to recovery of out-of-pocket pecuniary losses; they can also recover damages for pure emotional distress. Even without proof of actual reputational harm, Virginia courts have allowed plaintiffs to recover compensation for mental anguish, embarrassment, and humiliation. In essence, the worse the plaintiff feels, the higher the potential for a large damages award. In the business world, studies of disgruntled customers have shown that they are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that performs poorly but then apologizes than one that offers payment in lieu of an apology. It stands to reason, then, that a plaintiff’s emotional distress will likely be diminished if you make a sincere, timely apology, and publish that apology to the same group to whom you made the defamatory remarks.
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Where an otherwise defamatory statement is subject to a qualified privilege, a plaintiff can overcome that privilege by showing that the defendant acted with actual malice. However, “actual malice” in the context of a defamation action–also known as “New York Times malice,” is a different concept than the common-law malice ordinarily required to support an award of punitive damages. Actual malice does not require evil intent, spite, or ill will. A speaker acts with actual malice when he knows that his statement is false or acts with reckless disregard as to its truth. Mere dislike of the plaintiff is not sufficient to indicate a speaker acted with actual malice.

The standard for whether a defendant has uttered a defamatory statement with actual malice is a subjective one. In a lawsuit against a newspaper, for example, the plaintiff would not necessarily prevail merely by showing that the publisher failed to conduct a sufficient factual investigation or that a “reasonably prudent” publisher would not have published the story. Reckless disregard for the truth requires more than just a departure from professional journalistic standards. (See Harte-Hanks Commc’ns, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657, 666 (1989)). Rather, the court must get into the mind of the publisher and determine its state of mind at the time of publication. Reckless disregard for truth requires a high degree of awareness of probable falsity, such as when a publisher entertains “serious doubts as to the truth of his publication” but publishes the story anyway. (See St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968)).

The distinction between actual malice and common-law malice was explained last month in the Texas case of Tyson v. Austin Eating Disorders Partners, LLC. Edward Tyson worked for Austin Eating Disorders Partners (AED) as medical director of AED’s Austin eating disorder treatment center. After Tyson was removed from his position, he asked his accountant to inquire about AED’s improved financials. Mark McCallum, CFO of AED, responded to the inquiry with an email to Tyson, AED’s Board of Directors, AED’s attorney, and AED’s accountant stating that AED’s financials had improved because Tyson had been a bad medical director who had no idea how to run the treatment center and took kickbacks for referring patients to other facilities. In a Second Amended Complaint asserting various defamation theories, Tyson conceded that McCallum’s email was subject to a qualified privilege, but argued that he overcame the privilege by alleging that McCallum acted with actual malice. AED and McCallum moved to dismiss the claim.

When a defamatory statement is made about a public figure, a plaintiff must prove that the statement was published with actual malice, i.e. with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Mere proof that a defendant failed to investigate the truth of a statement is not enough to show actual malice, and where a defendant relies on a responsible source in making a statement, he has not been grossly negligent, much less malicious. However, evidence of intent to avoid the truth can be sufficient to satisfy the actual malice standard. The Second Circuit recently addressed these issues in Dongguk University v. Yale University.

When Shin Jeong-ah applied for a position as an art history professor at the prestigious Dongguk University in South Korea, she stated that she held a Ph.D. from Yale University in Art History, and she submitted a document on Yale University letterhead that purported to be a certification of her degree. The certification contained an exact reproduction of Yale Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister’s signature but misspelled the name and also misspelled the word “century” in Shin’s listed concentration – Twentieth Century Art. Nevertheless, Dongguk hired Shin and sent Yale an Inquiry Letter with the certification attached seeking to verify its authenticity. Dean Schirmeister received the letter and responded via fax “confirming that the attached letter [the certification] was issued by the Yale Graduate School and signed by me.”

Two years later, Dongguk became suspicious that Shin may have plagiarized her dissertation. An investigation revealed that Yale had no record of the dissertation and that in fact Shin had not received a Ph.D. from Yale. The Korean press latched on to the story, and Yale’s Deputy Counsel Susan Carney and Dean Edward Barnaby began referring all Shin-related media inquiries to its Office of Public Affairs.

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.

In ordinary defamation cases, proving malice is a straightforward affair because the statement at issue is only capable of being understood in a defamatory sense and the only question is whether the speaker knew the statement was false (or acted with reckless disregard to its falsity). Conversely, in defamation-by-implication cases, the allegedly defamatory statement has two possible meanings: one that is defamatory and one that is not. This complicates the malice inquiry because the speaker may or may not have intended to imply the defamatory meaning.

Recently, the Third Circuit had the opportunity to consider (1) whether the actual malice standard applies differently in defamation-by-implication cases such that more than knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for truth is required and (2) if the standard is different, can a plaintiff can satisfy the actual malice standard by showing defendant’s mere awareness of a defamatory implication and reckless disregard of that implication or whether plaintiff must show actual intent to convey a defamatory meaning.

The Third Circuit agreed with several other circuits that plaintiffs in defamation-by-implication cases must show something beyond knowledge of, or recklessness in regard to, the FALSITY of the statement’s defamatory

Workplace defamation suits will usually raise privilege issues. When one employee complains to a manager or supervisor about another employee and falsely maligns the other employee’s reputation in the process, the court will need to sort out whether the complaint is protected by qualified privilege. If it is, the statement can’t form the basis for a claim unless it was made with common-law malice or made to persons having no business hearing it. Common-law malice is different than the constitutional “New York Times” malice so often discussed in analyzing defamation liability. Common-law malice generally refers to some form of ill will on behalf of the speaker, motivated by things like hatred or a desire for revenge. In Virginia, there is a presumption that the speaker acted without malice.

When a slanderous statement occurs at work, it often involves an accusation that a co-worker is unfit to perform the duties of his or her job, due to a lack of competence or lack of integrity. Statements such as these which prejudice a person is his or her profession fall into the defamation per se category, which means that a jury can presume the statement was harmful to the plaintiff, even if special damages are not proven.

Earlier this month, a case from Stafford County was removed to federal court in Alexandria. Suzanne Brown, the plaintiff, was an FBI agent assigned to the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) within the Critical Incident Response FBI.jpgGroup (CIRG). The BAU handles cases involving threatened violence against public officials, and as a program manager, Brown was responsible for assessing such threats. Katherine Schoeneman, the defendant, is a psychologist who had formerly worked with Brown on some threat assessment cases under a contract with CIRG. Schoeneman offered her psychological observations while Brown provided investigative and law enforcement expertise.

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