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 successfully 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.
Snyder’s lawyers are well aware of that restriction, and therefore focus their allegations on certain statements in the article that could be more easily interpreted as factual allegations. Namely, that “Dan Snyder…got caught forging names as a telemarketer with Snyder Communications;” that he caused Agent Orange to be used to destroy trees “protected by the National Park Service” on “federally protected lands;” that Mr. Snyder bragged that his wealth came from diabetes and cancer victims; and that Mr. Snyder was “tossed off’ the Six Flags’ board of directors. According to Huffington Post reporter Jason Linkins, these allegations are all demonstrably true or were intended as metaphors with substantial truth to them. If the statements are true, they are not defamatory.
Mr. Snyder has an even higher hurdle to climb if we wants to recover damages against the Washington City Paper: as a widely known public figure, Mr. Snyder will need to prove not only that the article contained false statements, but that the Washington City Paper acted with “constitutional malice”: that it knew the statements were false or published the statements with reckless disregard of whether the statements were true or false.
If he fails to prove, with clear and convincing evidence, that the newspaper published false factual statements (not just opinions) about him, and that they did so with malice, he will lose the case. And while losing the case would not necessarily mean that the statements about Mr. Snyder’s alleged activities are true, what will public perception be?