Nicholas Sandmann’s Libel Lawsuits Against Several Media Outlets Dismissed
From Sandmann v. N.Y. Times, CBS News, ABC News, Gannett & Rolling Stone, decided yesterday by Judge William Bertelsman (E.D. Ky.):
These five libel cases arise out of events that occurred in Washington, D.C. on January 18, 2019 and the ensuing extensive media coverage of plaintiff Nicholas Sandmann’s encounter with Nathan Phillips. [Factual details quoted below. -EV] …
All parties agree that whether “a statement is fact or opinion is a question of law for the court to decide.” … “[A] statement of opinion relating to matters of public concern which does not contain a provably false factual connotation will receive full constitutional protection.” …
The Sixth Circuit has also emphasized that it is important for the court to consider what a reasonable reader would take away from allegedly defamatory statements. A recent Sixth Circuit case, Croce v. Sanders (6th Cir. 2021), illustrates this principle well. The case involved a biologist who contacted the New York Times and other newspapers about statistical inaccuracies in scientific articles authored by a celebrated cancer researcher. The cancer researcher sued the biologist for defamation. The Sixth Circuit held that his statement that the researcher “knowingly engag[ed] in scientific misconduct and fraud” was protected opinion.
Judge Thapar, who authored the opinion, focused on what a reasonable reader would take away from the letter that the biologist wrote. He concluded that “reasonable readers would see there is ample room for a different interpretation of the evidence [the biologist] presented.” He further explained that “whether a set of facts amounts to misconduct” is subjective and “we would expect people to have different opinions on the question.” The biologist’s statement was “neither an assertion of fact nor a conclusion that follows incontrovertibly from asserted facts as a matter of logic. It is instead a subjective take that is up for debate.” See also Seaton v. TripAdvisor (6th Cir. 2013) (“Readers would, instead, understand the list [of dirtiest hotels in America] to be communicating subjective opinions of travelers who use Trip Advisor.”); Macineirghe v. Cty. of Suffolk (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (finding that a statement from an eyewitness who recounted the entirety of a police chase and said that he saw someone “block” a police car was opinion, and a reasonable reader would not understand his words to imply undisclosed facts)….
In sum, the Court must ask whether a reasonable reader, in reading the entire article, would understand that the statement in question is someone’s opinion or interpretation of an event or situation. See, e.g., Partington v. Bugliosi (9th Cir. 1995) (“When an author outlines the facts available to him, thus making it clear that the challenged statements represent his own interpretation of those facts and leaving the reader free to draw his own conclusions, those statements are generally protected by the First Amendment.”); Hayes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (7th Cir. 1993) (“If it is plain that the speaker is expressing a subjective view, an interpretation, a theory, conjecture, or surmise, rather than claiming to be in possession of objectively verifiable facts, the statement is not actionable); Phantom Touring, Inc. v. Affiliated Publ’ns (1st Cir. 1992) (“The sum effect of the format, tone, and entire content of the articles is to make it unmistakably clear that [the author] was expressing a point of view only.”).
Finally, if an allegedly defamatory statement is a statement of opinion, it is actionable under Kentucky law “only if it implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts.” …
The allegedly defamatory
Article from Reason.com