Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The U.S. District Court for Massachusetts dismissed the Plaintiff’s defamation case, on the Defendant’s Motion, for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Scientist Shiva Ayyadurai brought a claim against Floor64, owner of the “Techdirt” website, its editor and writer, for allegedly defamatory statements that he falsely claimed to be the inventor of e-mail. The Court reasoned that the Defendant’s allegations that the Plaintiff was a “fake” for his assertions that he was the inventor of email were not actionable because there was no way for the Plaintiff to prove whether the statements were true or false.
This case involved a dispute between Shiva Ayyadurai, a scientist and inventor with a B.S. in computer science and electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in biological engineering. Ayyadurai alleged that he created email in 1978, and several sources confirmed this statement. However, there were reports of other inventors of email from different sources so, although Ayyadurai had received considerable press coverage for his claims, there were conflicting opinions as to who truly “created email.”
Floor64 is the corporation that owns the website at issue in this case, “Techdirt.” The other named defendants include Michael Masnick and Leigh Beadon who are the editor and writer for the website, respectively. During the period September 2014 to November 2016 Techdirt published several articles about Ayyadurai; thirteen written by Masnick and one by Beadon. The articles all centered on the allegation that Ayyadurai was a fake and had not invented email.
Ayyadurai issued proceedings against Techdirt and the writers alleging libel, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Defendants moved to strike the complaint on the basis of the California anti-SLAPP (“strategic litigation against public participation”) statute, alternatively to dismiss based on failure to state a claim.
The Court denied the Defendants’ Motion to strike and granted the Motion to Dismiss.
The Court started by considering the Defendant’s motion to strike the complaint. Since the motion was premised on a California statute the relevant issue for the Court was whether Massachusetts or California law applied (If California law applied, the anti-SLAPP statute would bar the suit). The Court found that Massachusetts law applied based on a multi-factor test. In summary, the Plaintiff resided in Massachusetts at the relevant time; the website was published in Massachusetts; and no state had a greater overriding interest in the outcome of the litigation.
The Court went on to consider the central issue, namely the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.
It noted that to bring a claim for defamation, the plaintiff must establish that (1) the statement is defamatory; (2) the statement satisfies the publication element; (3) if it is a matter of public concern the Plaintiff must prove the falsity of the statements; and (4) the Plaintiff must show h/she has suffered special damages. The main issue for the Court was not whether these elements were satisfied, but rather whether the speech was protected or not under the First Amendment.
First, the Court turned to the issue of whether the Plaintiff could be considered a public figure, and whether the statements made on the website were matters of public concern. The parties agreed that the Plaintiff was a limited public figure, with regard to the debate over who invented email. Therefore, the Plaintiff had the burden of establishing actual malice. The Court found the allegations in the complaint were not clear enough to establish that the statements were false. The statements did not dispute that the Plaintiff created an email system, rather that he was not the inventor of e-mail as it is generally understood. In order for the Plaintiff to show that the statements were defamatory, the statements had to be proved true or false, and the Court found there was no way to verify their veracity. Further, these statements were protected under the First Amendment as subjective statements. The Defendants had no more knowledge about the Plaintiff than any other person, and included citations to articles tracing the origins of email to as early as 1965. Further, the Defendants did not dispute several true facts (for example, that the Plaintiff had invented a messaging system), but rather, they alleged that he did not create email as we know it today. In these circumstances the Court held that the Defendants’ statements were subjective and constituted “protected opinion”.
The Plaintiff further argued that some of the statements alleging that he was a “fraud” implied that he had committed a crime and were therefore defamatory per se. The Court disagreed, finding that hyperbolic statements were protected so long as no reasonable person would assume that the statements were statements of fact. The Court used this same analysis to dismiss as defamatory statements that the Plaintiff alleged meant that he was creating a fake controversy. It said that, like the hyperbolic statements, these statements were protected because they were both incapable of being proved true or false and were subjective statements that did not imply knowledge of objective facts.
The Court went on to say that the statements that the Plaintiff had misrepresented both copyright law and the RAND report were likewise protected. When read in context, the Court said, the statements were clearly subjective statements that did not imply the existence of objectively verifiable facts. The articles at issue fully explained the basis for their position, thereby enabling readers to come to their own conclusions.
The Court further found that other allegedly defamatory statements made by the Defendants were clearly just one interpretation of the facts presented and therefore not actionable as demonstrably false (for example, statements that the Plaintiff based his reputation on this claim; statements that the Plaintiff’s story had changed; statements accusing the Plaintiff of racism). The Court also looked at several statements alleged by the Plaintiff to be defamatory that were statements of the Plaintiff’s motivation, intent or purpose. The Court noted that these types of statement are subjective and not capable of being proven false or true (no-one except the Plaintiff knows his motivation behind something and a reasonable person would know it was only the Defendants’ opinion as to what the Plaintiff was thinking). The Court said that the context in which the posts were presented supported this analysis.
In all these circumstances, the Court found that the complaint failed to allege actual malice as required by a public figure to succeed in a defamation action and therefore the Plaintiff’s claim failed.
The Court also found that the individual claim against Defendant Beadon was protected by the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), which protects from liability mere re-publishers of material on a website. The Court found that Beadon, who edited and re-posted user comments was not a “creator” of the statements and therefore immune from liability under the CDA.
Finally, the Court turned to the Plaintiff’s claims for Intentional Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage and for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. The Court found that because the complaint for defamation was barred under the First Amendment, the claims for interference with prospective economic advantage and infliction of emotional distress were also barred. The Court further noted that, even without the First Amendment bar, these claims failed because they didn’t state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
The Court also dismissed the Plaintiff’s application for leave to amend his complaint, in lieu of dismissal, because the Plaintiff alleged no new facts which would materially change the analysis in the Motion to Dismiss. The Court granted the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by affirming that subjective statements of opinion cannot be considered defamatory, and that plaintiffs who are limited public figures bear the burden of proving the falsity of statements.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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