Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The United States (US) District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Atlanta Division dismissed a libel claim against a CNN article that failed to prove actual malice against the defendants. The plaintiff, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., claimed that a libelous statement was made within an article published by CNN that discussed that the Trump Campaign was considering an option to seek Russia’s help in the 2020 election, and that the defendants (the CNN corporations) knew it was false at the time of publication. The defendants raised a motion to dismiss the libel claim. US District Judge Michael L. Brown granted the defendants’ motion. Whilst the Court found the piece contained an actionable defamatory statement because it read not as an opinion but as a fact, it did not agree that the statement was published with actual malice, requiring knowledge of its falsity or in a manner that recklessly disregarded its falsity. Actual malice was a standard that applied since the plaintiff was a public figure. The plaintiff was allowed the opportunity to file an amended complaint.
The plaintiff in this case was Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. The corporation pursued a libel claim in respect of a statement made in a CNN article. On June 13, 2019, an article was published by CNN contributor Larry Noble entitled “Soliciting dirt on your opponents from a foreign government is a crime. Mueller should have charged Trump campaign officials with it” [p. 1-2].
The article proceeded to discuss Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, specifically President Trump’s response to the investigation and statements by him and his associates regarding the potential involvement of foreign actors in 2020’s election. Amidst this backdrop, Mr Noble delivered the allegedly libelous statement: “The Trump campaign assessed the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020 and has decided to leave that option on the table” [p. 2].
The plaintiff sued CNN Broadcasting, Inc., CNN Productions, Inc., and CNN Interactive Group, Inc. (collectively the defendants) for libel. It claimed that the statement made within the article was defamatory and false, and that the defendants knew it was false at the time of publication.
The defendants raised a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s libel claim.
US District Judge Michael L. Brown of the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Atlanta Division sought to determine if the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s libel complaint was warranted. Particularly, whether the complaint contained sufficient factual matter to make a claim that was plausible on its face.
The defendants contended that the plaintiff’s libel claim should be dismissed. They argued that the piece was a political op-ed. The allegedly defamatory statement was not actionable because statements of opinion were protected under state and federal constitutional law. They also claimed, arguendo, that the plaintiff failed to present particular facts showing that anyone at CNN was subjectively aware of the statement’s falsehood – failing to highlight any malice attributable to the defendants in publishing the article.
Regarding the standard of review for a motion to dismiss, the Court noted that it was to accept all well-pleaded facts as true and interpret them in a manner most favorable to the plaintiff. A claim was successful against a motion to dismiss when it “contain[ed] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that [was] plausible on its face’” [p. 3]. Facial plausibility arose when there was “factual content that allow[ed] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant [was] liable for the misconduct alleged” [p. 3].
The Court proceeded to determine the applicable choice of law rules. The motion to dismiss was a diversity action filed in Georgia, and thus Georgia’s choice-of-law provisions were applicable. Specifically, Georgia adhered to the doctrine of lex loci delicti whereby a tort action is governed by the substantive law of where the tort transpired. The Court rejected arguments by the plaintiff to forego lex loci delicti in favor of the “most significant relationship test” under the Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Law. In advancing this approach, the plaintiff erred in its legal authority, citing decisions that were not consistently upheld.
Furthermore, the Court followed prior reasoning that the locus delicti was the place where the tortious injury was suffered, not where the act itself was committed. In multi-state defamation cases, the place of injury was where the plaintiff was domiciled. For the plaintiff, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., it was domiciled where it was incorporated and had its principal place of business – Virginia and New York respectively. The latter was where the alleged injury was “more principally felt” [p. 7] and so the law of New York was applied to the libel claim.
Regarding the merits of the motion to dismiss, the Court firstly outlined the five elements needed to prove libel claims: (1) a written defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) publication to a third party; (3) fault; (4) falsity of the defamatory statement; (5) special damages or per se actionability. In addition to those elements, plaintiffs who were public figures had to prove that the defamatory statement was made with actual malice.
Under New York law, actionable defamatory statements had to be statements of fact, not of opinion. Whether a statement was of fact or of opinion was a matter of law for courts, based on what the average person considering the communication understood it to mean. Determining this response entailed three factors: (1) whether the language used had “a precise meaning readily understood” [p. 9]; (2) whether the statements could be proven true or false; (3) whether the context and surrounding circumstances of the communication indicated to people that the content was likely to be opinion and not fact.
In respect of the first factor, the defendants had argued that statement was an opinion and could not be deemed a statement of “provably false facts” [p. 10]. The Court disagreed with the defendants. In terms of the language used, the statement in question had two parts: whether the plaintiff was assessing to seek Russia’s help in the 2020 election, and whether the plaintiff left the option “on the table”. The Court found that a reader would understand the clear meaning of the first part. In terms of the second part, the Court did not deem “figurative, imprecise language” [p. 10] to automatically amount to an opinion that was not actionable. In weighing the “totality of the circumstances” [p. 10], it found that despite language being figurative, it was also precise in conveying to readers that the option was “available for consideration” [p. 10].
The second factor of the test was satisfied since it was evident that the statement was “subject to verification” [p. 11] and could be proven true or false. Regarding the third factor, the Court referenced Mann v. Abel 885 N.E.2d (N.Y. 2008) in which “rhetorical flourishes along with the broad context in which the piece appeared” [p. 11] contributed to reasonable readers viewing a statement as an opinion. Whilst the CNN article contained rhetorical flourishes, a disclaimer of opinion, and was published in an opinion section, the context of the statement did not lend itself to being viewed as an opinion. Particularly, the paragraphs preceding and following the statement included softening and qualifying language that indicated an opinion, but the statement itself did not. Likewise, the context of the article indicated that the statement was used as fact to propel the expressions of opinion preceding and following it. In other words, the statement’s “factual assertion provide[d] the bridge” [p. 14] that interlinked Mr Noble’s assessment and argument – the surrounding opinion “lie[d] on both sides with the Statement as a factual allegation bringing them together” [p. 14]. This context suggested to readers a statement of fact, not of opinion.
Whilst the statement was deemed factual on these fronts, the Court agreed with the defendants in their alternative argument that the plaintiff did not plausibly allege the statement was published with malice. The plaintiff conceded that it was a public figure and as per constitutional law, public figure plaintiffs had to prove actual malice. In constitutional terms, actual malice required that a defamatory statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or in a manner that recklessly disregarded its falsity. The Court found most of the plaintiff’s allegations regarding malice were merely conclusory and “insufficient to support a cause of action” [p. 15].
The Court highlighted one allegation of malice made by the plaintiff: Mr Noble had a record of malice and bias towards President Trump based on a tweet and prior articles he wrote. Referencing Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton 491 U.S. 657 (1989), the Court reemphasized the US Supreme Court’s finding that actual malice was not satisfied simply through a demonstration of ill-will or malice as ordinarily understood. On this standard, any ill-will by Mr Noble via tweet toward the President was not on a par with malice in the constitutional sense. Additionally, referencing Palin v. New York Times Co. 940 F.3d 804 (2d Cir. 2019), the Court elucidated that prior articles only proved malice to the extent that those articles were directly related to the current defamatory statement in question. Mr Noble’s prior articles dealt with criminal activity and campaign finance/ethic violations which differed from the topic of the statement about considering an option to seek Russia’s help in the 2020 election. Therefore, they did not suggest that Mr Noble knew of the true facts relating to the statement or acted in manner that recklessly disregarded such truth.
The Court concluded that the plaintiff did not adequately plead that the statement in question was published with actual malice, albeit it did allow the plaintiff to file an amended complaint. Based on the current findings, the defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted and the plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression because, using the standard of actual malice that applies to plaintiffs who are public figures, the statement in question was not sufficiently plead to amount to actual malice – despite there being malice in the ordinary sense of the word and the statement being read as a fact, not opinion.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Referenced to note that “rhetorical flourishes along with the broad context in which the piece appeared” [p. 11] contributed to reasonable readers viewing a piece as an opinion.
Referenced to emphasize the US Supreme Court’s finding that actual malice was not satisfied simply through a demonstration of ill-will or malice as ordinarily understood.
Referenced to outline that prior articles only proved malice to the extent that those articles were directly related to the current defamatory statement in question.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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