First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Monday, January 27, 2014

US Supreme Court's first defamation case in nearly a decade has high points

Earlier today, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper.  It is the first defamation case before the Court since 2005.

The Air Wisconsin case involved statements made by an airline regarding Hoeper, a pilot the airline was on the verge of firing.  The airline expressed its concern to TSA that Hoeper, who was about to board a flight as a passenger, was "unstable" and might possibly be armed because Hoeper was someone with clearance to carry weapons on planes (he was not carrying a weapon).  Hoeper sued for defamation and won a large judgment from a jury, which was later affirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court.  The airline said it was protected from the lawsuit by a relatively new federal law that gives extra protection for statements intended to aid in airline safety.

The US Supreme Court's decision is notable for a few reasons.

First, it reaffirmed that substantially true statements cannot support a claim for defamation.  According to some, there was an open question whether even true statements, spoken without sufficient knowledge of whether they are true or false, could support a claim for defamation.  In other words, there was some theorizing that even true statements could support a defamation claim if the speaker acted recklessly toward whether the statements were true (or even if the speaker incorrectly believed them to be false).  We've all heard the phrase "truth is a defense to defamation."  Setting aside my firm belief that it should be more than just a defense -- i.e., that defamation plaintiffs should always have to prove falsity -- a result that would have imposed liability on true statements in a case like Air Wisconsin would have been a terrible blow for the First Amendment ... not to mention airline safety.  Thankfully, the Court ruled the right way.

Second, a corollary to the first point is that the Court reaffirmed that it is not possible to establish actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth) without showing that the allegedly defamatory statement was false[Disclosure:  I was counsel of record on the First Amendment Coalition's amicus curiae (friend of the Court) brief in this case, arguing that every context where the actual malice standard appears (including this one) requires a showing a falsity.  It is heartening to know that the Court agreed with that position!]

Third, the Court independently reviewed the jury's decision whether the statements were materially true or false.  That important decision should guide other, lower appellate courts that they ought to do the same thing under similar circumstances.

Fourth, the decision uses the phrase "materially" true and false repeatedly, emphasizing that only "materially false" statements -- i.e., statements that leave a different effect on the mind of the reader or listener than that which the truth would have produced -- can support a defamation claim such as Hoeper's.  That phrase originates from the second-to-last defamation case before the Supreme Court, decided in 1991, but the doctrine is more commonly referred to as "substantial truth" by practitioners.  In fact, that is how I referred to it above.  I think the principle being set forth is the same, but it remains to be seen whether there will be a shift in nomenclature as a result of this decision.  

Fifth, the biggest (pleasant) surprise was that the Court reviewed the jury's verdict on material falsity, and then reversed the jury's decision.  The airline and Hoeper asked the Court to decide whether the jury's decision on falsity should be reviewed by an appellate court.  The Court conspicuously excluded that issue when agreeing to hear the case.  But, a majority (6-3) went on to not only rule that the Court should evaluate that issue, but that the jury got it wrong.  The dissenters, Scalia, Thomas and Kagan -- interesting bedfellows! -- thought that a jury should take another look with proper instructions from the trial court.

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