Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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In this case the seventh Judicial District Court of the State of Idaho dismissed a defamation suit brought by a billionaire political donor, Frank VanderSloot, against the magazine Mother Jones. The Court dismissed the case on the grounds that VanderSloot had failed to prove that the allegation made by the magazine about him were false and statements of opinion relating to matters of public concern that can not be proven to have any false connotations are protected by the first amendment.
The plaintiffs in this case were Frank VanderSloot and his corporation Melaleuca. The defendants were Mother Jones magazine, CEO of Mother Jones, Monika Bauerlein, and Editor-in-Chief, Stephanie Mencimer. VanderSloot and Melaleuca sued the defendants over an article that was published on February 6, 2012, discussing how Melaleuca and its subsidiaries had given $1 million to Mitt Romney’s super-PAC. They also sued the magazine’s CEO personally for a tweet she posted about the story and the Editor-in-Chief who wrote the article. The article complained of also addressed VanderSloot’s controversial political history in Idaho when it comes to LGBTQ issues, in particular, that he had taken out full-page ads in a local newspaper and publicly outed a reporter as gay who had exposed child sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts.
The defendants moved for summary judgment making five arguments: “(1) no specific reference to Melaleuca; (2) rhetorical hyperbole or protected opinion; (3) lack of proof of actual malice; (4) substantial truth of the statements; and (5) lack of proof of damages.” [ p. 2] The plaintiffs argued that the statements complained of “(1) are ‘of and concerning Melaleuca’; (2) are false; (3) were published with actual malice; (4) are not opinion or hyperbole; (5) are defamatory per se; and (6) caused damages even if not defamatory per se.” [p. 2]
Based on the above argument the Court held that the issues that needed to be determined were:
“1. Did any of the statements at issue refer with particularity to Melaleuca?
2. Were any of the statements at issue protected as opinion or rhetorical hyperbole?
3. Are any of the statements at issue non-actionable truth or substantial truth?
4. Are any of the statements at issue defamatory per se?
5. Is there a lack of damages?
6. Has actual malice been shown?”
Judge Darla Williamson of the Fourth District delivered the judgment.
Judge Williamson began by setting out the elements that must be present in order to sustain a Defamation cause of action. A plaintiff must prove that: “(a) the defendant communicated information concerning the plaintiff to others; (b) the information was defamatory; and (c) the plaintiff was damaged because of the communication.”
If a publication concerns a public figure or official, or matters of public concern and the defendant is media, then the plaintiff must also show that the statements at issue are false. In addtion, if the plaintiff is a public figure, then the New York Times v. Sullivan standard applies, and the plaintiff can recover only if it is proven that the publication was made with actual malice i.e. with knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth. Defendants may assert the affirmative defense of “fair comment” with regards to matters of legitimate public interest. Finally, in determining whether or not a publication is of a defamatory nature, the court will consider the article as whole and words assigned their common and usually accepted meaning and interpreted as they would be by the target audience.
The Judge then discussed the First Amendment, outlining that it established a broad zone of protection for the press to publish without fear of incurring liability based on injurious falsehood because of the value placed on “the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” It is understood that false statements will be made in the context of free debate and the protection of the first amendment affords freedoms of expression necessary ‘breathing space’.
The Court pointed out that a writer cannot be sued for expressing their opinion or the opinion of another regardless of how unreasonable that opinion is or how it is expressed. An opinion, unless it is one that implies a false assertion of fact i.e. a false implication that the author knows facts about the person that are unknown to the readers, that cannot be proved false cannot be considered libelous and nor can hyperbole and mere name-calling. The context in which a statement is made is paramount. Furthermore, according to Idaho law it is not necessary to prove the literal truth of the statement but “so long as the substance, the gist, the sting of the allegedly libelous charge be justified,” minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity.
The judge then analyzed the facts. She held that the broad context of the complained of article and tweet was that all of it took place during a national political campaign. The subject of the publication was to highlight the political leanings of Vandersloot who was CEO of Melaleuca, one of the major donors to Mitt Romney’s super-PAC. The statements made, the judge wrote, underscored VanderSloot’s opinion of homosexuality as a negative trait that undermines journalistic ability, an opinion that he himself had made public with his full-page ads.
It was held that the context and content of the publication tended toward objective fact as opposed to subjective hyperbole. It was held that the contested statements and tweet were protected statement of opinion based fully on disclosed facts that were not actionable.
The judge found that Mother Jones‘ statement that VanderSloot had ‘outed’ a reporter to be substantially true even though the meaning of ‘outing’ was contested since it was uncontested that VanderSloot had indeed taken out a full page ad publicly identifying to a particular audience that the reporter was gay. Further, with regard to the plaintiff’s objection to the use by Mother Jones of the term ‘bash’ in gay-bashing, it was held that it was subject to a broad spectrum of interpretation precluding it from being ‘proved’ true or false , and since the statements in which it was uses were not false but substantially true and relating to a matter of public concern, a claim for liability under the law of defamation in Idaho could not be sustained. It was held that statements of opinion relating to matters of public concern and not containing any provably false factual connotations received full constitutional protection. Since the Mother Jones statements fell into this category, and questions of actual malice became moot, they were protected by the first amendment.
Thus, summary judgment was granted in favor of the Mother Jones defendants. However, the Judge also commented on the state of political journalism finding it to be troubling. She wrote that she found the reporting style of Mother Jones to be “little more than mud-slinging, advertised as journalistic fearlessness” and leading the way in “demonizing, rather than fairly discussing, those whose points of view differ from its own.”
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In this case a Federal Court in Idaho held that a magazine did not defame a billionaire political donor by stating in an article that he took out a full page ad in a local newspaper which ‘outed’ a reporter and for referring to him as ‘gay-bashing’. It was held that even though the magazine may have a clear bias, statements of opinion by the press relating to matters in the public interest that do not have any false factual connotations are protected by the First Amendment and a claim for liability cannot be sustained. This decision is expansive of expression because it rules in favor of the press and avoids creating a possible chilling effect for free political reporting which is a very important component of a democratic society.
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