Articles Posted in Public Concern

A new law will go into effect on July 1, 2017, that creates what amounts to a qualified privilege against defamation actions for statements regarding matters of public concern that would be entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Under the amended and restated Va Code § 8.01-223.2, the immunity would be lost with respect to any statements made with actual malice (i.e., statements made with actual knowledge that they are false, or with reckless disregard for whether they are false) or “constructive knowledge” of the statements’ falsity. Significantly, because the General Assembly chose to incorporate the privilege into Virginia’s existing anti-SLAPP statute, if a defendant is successful in having a defamation case dismissed on grounds of this new statutory immunity, he may be entitled to reimbursement of his attorneys’ fees. The amendment appears to be designed to drastically expand Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute (which had previously been limited to statements made at public hearings) and will almost certainly lead to an uptick in plea-in-bar hearings seeking quick dismissals and fee awards.

What is not yet clear to me is why “constructive knowledge” of falsity was included as an exception to the immunity. A person has constructive knowledge of a fact if, through the exercise of reasonable care, he should have known it, even if he didn’t actually know the fact. Including constructive knowledge as an exception eviscerates much of the statute’s potential deterrent effect. This is because virtually every facially valid defamation claim will involve an allegation that the defendant was had at least constructive knowledge that what he was saying was false and that he acted negligently with respect to uncovering the truth. To state a prima facie case for defamation, a private plaintiff must allege that the defendant either knew that the statement was false, or, believing the statement to be true, lacked a reasonable basis for such belief, or acted negligently in failing to determine the facts on which the publication was based. (See Lewis v. Kei, 281 Va. 715, 725 (2011)). In other words, if a plaintiff fails to allege that the defendant had at least constructive knowledge of falsity, the case will be dismissed on demurrer regardless of the anti-SLAPP immunity. On the other hand, if a plaintiff does allege (and eventually prove) constructive knowledge, the immunity will not apply. In short, it does not appear to me that there will be many situations in which this new “public concern” immunity will come into play. I suppose defendants will start opting to file pleas in bar in lieu of demurrers. We’ll have to wait and see how courts deal with this issue.

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In every defamation case, it’s necessary to determine whether the plaintiff should be treated as a public figure, a public official, or a regular Average Joe. This is because “public” plaintiffs face a much higher burden of proof than “private” plaintiffs. A private plaintiff normally only needs to prove that a defamatory statement was made with negligence in regard to whether the statement was true or false, whereas a public plaintiff generally needs to show that the defendant acted with malice, which is much more difficult to prove than negligence. There are many justifications for the discrepancy, but the most frequently cited are that (a) public plaintiffs voluntarily assumed the spotlight, and they should know that having people talk loosely about them comes with the territory, and (b) by virtue of their notoriety, public plaintiffs have more opportunities to rebut defamatory statements. Courts sometimes use the terms “public figure” and “public official” interchangeably, but they are conceptually different, and different considerations determine whether a plaintiff should be treated as one or the other.

The main distinguishing feature is that public officials are not necessarily attention-seeking, and as a result, they are not always treated as “public” plaintiffs who would need to show malice in order to prevail in a defamation action.
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The First Amendment guarantees, among other freedoms, “the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This right to petition is part of the First Amendment‘s free-speech protection, as it pertains to a particular form of freedom of expression. A lawsuit aimed at deterring or punishing citizens from exercising this First Amendment right, or from otherwise exercising their right to freely express their political views or engage in discourse on a matter of public concern, is known as a “SLAPP” suit. (SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”). SLAPP suits usually don’t advertise the fact that they seek to chill the expression of ideas; they are often disguised as legitimate lawsuits for defamation or some other tort.

A majority of states have passed anti-SLAPP laws designed to facilitate the identification and early dismissal of frivolous SLAPP suits. The laws differ from state to state, but generally allow a defendant to make a “special” motion to dismiss if he can show the claim arises from a statement made in connection with a public issue in furtherance of the right to free speech. Significantly, if the court grants one of these special motions to strike, the anti-SLAPP statutes generally allow the defendant to recover his attorneys’ fees. Attorneys’ fees are normally not recoverable in defamation actions, so this can be a powerful deterrent against meritless lawsuits.
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According to The Virginian-Pilot, Portsmouth attorney Sterling H. Weaver was “convicted in Portsmouth General District Court of assault” in June 2006. A new lawsuit filed by that attorney alleges that a WAVY-TV report, broadcast in February 2014, reported similarly that “in 2006, a Chesapeake judge sentenced [Mr. Weaver] to 30 days in jail for grabbing a prosecutor by the throat after she asked to postpone a case.” (The quote is from the complaint, not the WAVY-TV report). Mr. Weaver says that he heard the report while in jail, where he was staying after being “indicted for assault on a law enforcement officer and sexual battery of that officer.” The report was defamatory, the lawsuit claims, because “the 2006 charge of assault was dismissed.”

Those of you who share with me an unnatural interest in Virginia defamation law are naturally curious as to what the issues in this case are going to be. There are several in my mind, but here are the first few that jump out:
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In bankruptcy court, the presumption in favor of public access to judicial records can be overcome if “scandalous or defamatory matter” is contained in a paper filed therein. (See 11 U.S.C. Section 107). Curiously, there is an absolute judicial privilege for statements made in connection with and relevant to a judicial proceeding, so normally one wouldn’t expect to find “defamatory matter” in a court filing. Still, there is a relevance requirement to be entitled to the privilege, and there’s always a possibility that potentially defamatory or scandalous statements will be made in a court filing that have nothing to do with the underlying merits. And that’s exactly what happened in the recent case of Robbins v. Tripp.

Attorney John W. Tripp was handling a case in bankruptcy court when certain issues arose relating to perceived problems with his practice. The court ordered him to prepare and file a report containing details relating to his organization of files, supervision of staff, communication with clients, and related matters. The bankruptcy court instructed that the report be written “candidly and not as an advocate for any party to this matter.” Mr. Tripp moved for leave to file the report under seal, based in part on Section 107’s “scandalous or defamatory” provision. The motion was granted, and the trustee appealed.
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Defamation law affords remedies to plaintiffs whose reputations have been tarnished by the false and damaging statements of others. But defamation plaintiffs face a particular dilemma: because legal proceedings are generally open to the public, filing a lawsuit over the libel or slander usually results in further publicity of the very statements the plaintiff wants to suppress. This has become known as the Streisand Effect, and is the same dilemma faced by plaintiffs seeking to enforce contracts containing non-disparagement provisions.

A vivid example is provided by the case of Dr. Steven A. Guttenberg v. Dr. Robert W. Emery, currently pending in District of Columbia federal court. Doctors Guttenberg and Emery were joint shareholders of an oral surgery practice for roughly 20 years, but their relationship soured and litigation ensured in 2008. The doctors settled that case with a settlement agreement containing a non-disparagement provision that restricted each of them from making statements concerning the other that might be harmful to reputation.
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Emily Hughes is an unhappy customer of Johnson Utilities, which supplies water to parts of Arizona. Emily posted various complaints to a Facebook group in which she described “yellow water” coming from her faucets and expressed dismay about low water pressure. Until recently, I had never heard of Emily Hughes, Johnson Utilities, or the allegations about yellow water being supplied to certain residents of Arizona. But Johnson Utilities decided that the appropriate means to address the situation was to sue Emily for defamation. That caused the story to show up in my news feed, mostly in the form of opinion pieces mocking the lawsuit.

The reason the lawsuit strikes so many as silly is that Emily Hughes didn’t just write about the yellow water entering her home, she took a video of it. The video clearly shows yellow water coming out of a faucet. She uploaded the video to a Facebook page entitled “Citizens Against Johnson Utilities”–a page ostensibly formed by citizens concerned with the local water provider’s environmental practices as well as low water pressure in the area. The site was renamed “The San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates” in August. CBS 5 News included Emily’s video in a televised report about consumer complaints regarding the water supplied by Johnson Utilities.

At first glance, the complaint appears to have very little merit. Johnson Utilities complains about things that are generally not actionable in a court of law, like Emily expressing “extreme hostility” towards Johnson Utilities, going on a “ceaseless vendetta,” and posting various “disparaging statements” on Facebook. Johnson even makes the yellow water.jpgodd allegation that Emily’s opposition to a rate increase was part of a scheme to defame the company. The lawsuit suggests she would “oppose any rate changes that could be beneficial” to the utility company, without recognizing the possibility that Emily might just prefer not to have to pay more money for water.

Anti-SLAPP laws provide an expedited procedure for dismissing lawsuits that are filed primarily to inhibit the valid exercise of constitutionally protected speech. A defendant seeking to avail herself of an Anti-SLAPP statute must show that the allegedly defamatory statements concern a public matter or a matter of public interest. Not all statements about a person in the public eye qualify. Rather, the subject of the statement must be involved in a public controversy or be so famous that her involvement in a private dispute is a matter of public interest. A California appellate court recently addressed this issue in Albanese v. Menounos and concluded that some celebrity disputes are just none of our business and don’t require the protection of the anti-SLAPP statute.

Lindsay Albanese is a celebrity stylist who worked at NBC for several years as a stylist for Maria Menounos of Access Hollywood fame. Albanese contends that on one occasion after leaving NBC, when Albanese and Menounos ran into each other at an event, Menounos loudly proclaimed that “Dolce and Gabbana won’t lend to me anymore because they said you never returned anything.” Menounos also allegedly told someone at the party afterwards that Albanese had stolen from her while she worked at NBC.

Albanese sued Menounos for defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arguing that the statements were made with malice, actual knowledge of their falsity, and with specific intent to injure Albanese’s reputation and employment. Her complaint seeks damages for injury to her personal, business and professional reputation, embarrassment, humiliation, severe emotional distress, shunning, anguish, fear, loss of employment and employability and economic loss in the form of lost wages and future earnings. Menounos moved to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law.

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.

Applying Virginia law, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a $1.4 million jury verdict against Air Wisconsin back in March of 2012, finding it was responsible for slander of a former pilot and not entitled to immunity. On June 17, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the question of whether a court can deny the immunity provided by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) without a prior determination that the air carrier’s statements to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were materially false.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Congress passed the ATSA in order to encourage the reporting of security concerns. The ATSA requires airlines and their employees to report potential security threats to the TSA. Reporting parties are given broad immunity and may only be liable for reports made with actual knowledge that the report was false, inaccurate, or misleading, or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the report. Because failure to report can result in civil penalties, shorthand for the policy has become known as “when in doubt, report.”

William Hoeper was a pilot for Air Wisconsin Airlines. Hoeper apparently had failed three proficiency exams and abandoned his fourth attempt. Approximately ninety minutes into the test, Air Wisconsin contends that Hoeper ran the simulator out of fuel, flamed out the engines, and nearly crashed. According to Air Wisconsin, Hoeper knew he would be terminated and was acting irrationally, yelling and cursing at his instructors. Hoeper’s version of the SCT.jpgstory is that Air Wisconsin was conducting the simulator test unfairly, and a personal dispute was escalated into a matter of national security.

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