Articles Posted in Public Figures

Did an Associated Press reporter commit a foul against an NBA referee earlier this year by defaming him on Twitter during a league game? On March 14, 2011, National Basketball Association official Bill Spooner filed a federal defamation case against Associated Press sports beat reporter Jon Krawczynski for a brief item that Krawczynski wrote on his Twitter account that suggested Spooner was officiating a game dishonestly. During an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets on January 24, 2011, Krawczynski tweeted (twote?) that Spooner told Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis after an allegedly bad call against a Minnesota player that Rambis would “get it back,” and that Spooner went on to compensate for the incorrect call with a “make-up” call against Houston.

Spooner says that although he had a brief verbal exchange with Rambis about the foul call, he said nothing to the coach about giving anything back to the Timberwolves. His lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, says Krawczynski defamed him by telling Krawczynski’s Twitter followers in effect that Spooner had engaged in a “form of game fixing.” Spooner discusses in his complaint that the NBA was recently caught up in a controversy involving former ref Tim Donaghy, who pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007 after being accused of betting on games that he officiated.

The NBA itself discouraged the lawsuit, although it doesn’t believe Spooner actually cheated either. According to a league spokesman, “We investigated the content of the tweet when it appeared, found it to be without substance, and informedBball.jpg Mr. Spooner that we considered the matter closed. We subsequently advised Mr. Spooner’s lawyer that we did not think suing a journalist over an incorrect tweet would be productive.”

Last summer, United States Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted online a speech that she had made 23 years before, when she worked for a nonprofit organization. The video that Breitbart posted supposedly showed that Sherrod, who is African American, had engaged in racial discrimination against a white farmer who needed financial assistance. It soon emerged, however, that the video clip that Breitbart placed online was significantly edited, and that in full context, Sherrod emerged as a supporter of equal opportunity rather than as a racist. After all that background was revealed, President Obama took the unusual step of formally and publicly apologizing to her. She was offered her job back, but she declined the offer. Instead, she hired a team of preeminent defamation attorneys to take Mr. Breitbart to court.

On February 11, 2011, Sherrod filed a defamation suit in D.C. Superior Court against Breitbart and two alleged accomplices, alleging that the depiction of her as a racist had caused her financial losses, physical symptoms, and “irreparable reputation and career damage.” Sherrod is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as a court order that Breitbart remove the offending material from his blog. Breitbart has not yet formally responded to the lawsuit, but he did say in a statement that he “categorically rejects the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech.”

Defamation suits against public figures are never easy. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court for several decades to give a very wide berth to people who criticize public officials or discuss matters of public concern. In general, celebrities or other Sherrod.jpgpublic figures who sue for defamation cannot win unless they can show that the defendant made the offending statement with “actual malice,” which essentially amounts to knowledge that the defamatory statements were false, or reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.

It doesn’t take a defamation expert to see the flaws in the $2 million libel lawsuit filed this week by Redskins owner Dan Snyder against the Washington City Paper. Mr. Snyder took offense at an article titled, “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder: From A to Z (for Zorn), an Encyclopedia of the Owner’s Many Failings,” which contains a detailed list of reasons the author considered him a bad owner. Mr. Snyder also disapproved of an image of him, published with the article in question, on which someone had doodled devil horns and a mustache, which Mr. Snyder deemed “an anti-Semitic caricature of himself” which “forced” him to file the lawsuit. Talk about thin skin.

First of all, how ironic is it that Mr. Snyder claims he was forced to bring this lawsuit to protect his reputation and good name, and yet by virtue of suing the newspaper, he has stoked the interest of the media and triggered widespread public scrutiny into his prior activities, vastly increasing the number of people who will seek out and read The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder? Personally, I’m not a regular reader of the Washington City Paper and would never have known about the alleged defamatory statements had Mr. Snyder not called my attention to them by suing the paper. Mr. Snyder and his lawyers have alerted the otherwise complacent populace to a long list of alleged bad acts by the Redskins owner. Even if he wins the case, will he really have done himself and his reputation any favors by suing an outspoken critic?

But he won’t win. As I explained in an earlier blog post, not just any hurtful or offensive comment will constitute libel or slander upon which a plaintiff could DevilDoodle.jpgsuccessfully sue for millions of dollars. Defamation liability requires the publication of a false factual statement that concerns and harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. Statements of opinion, regardless of how unfavorable the opinion, are not actionable. Thus, calling Mr. Snyder a failure, likening him to the devil, and referring to the “stain” he supposedly left on the Redskins are all constitutionally protected as free speech.

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