CNN, HuffPost and Rolling Stone Beat Joe Arpaio Libel Lawsuit

Chris Cuomo of CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time speaks onstage during the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 - Getty-H 2019
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

No, Joe won't be going home with $300 million.

That's the amount of damages that Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, demanded in a defamation suit against CNN, Rolling Stone and Huffington Post for getting the details of his legal troubles wrong. But on Thursday, a D.C. federal judge granted the motion to dismiss, ruling that Arpaio had failed to allege facts adding up to a plausible claim of actual malice by the media outlets.

During his tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arpaio became the subject of criminal contempt charges thanks to his willful disregard of an injunction preventing him from detaining persons solely on the belief they were undocumented immigrants. The Department of Justice agreed to a six-month sentence, but that became moot after President Donald Trump pardoned him.

As Arpaio continued to attract news attention, the defendant media outlets presented him as a "convicted felon" and someone who was "sent to prison" when in actuality, neither was accurate. The contempt conviction wasn't a felony; it was a misdemeanor.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth let each of the media defendants off the hook. (Read the full opinion.)

For CNN, Chris Cuomo may have mentioned that Arpaio was a "convicted felon" during his program, but the judge sees it as substantially true.

"Mr. Cuomo's error amounted to a mistake in legal nomenclature that was contextualized by the report that immediately followed the erroneous statement," writes the judge.

Rolling Stone and Huffington Post are saved for other reasons. But first, the arguments that weren't successful.

Rolling Stone called Arpaio an "ex-felon" in a story, which may sound similar to what Cuomo said, but context evidently matters.

"To someone reading the original article without any context, the sting or gist of the erroneous publication was the 'ex-felon' label itself, which, on its own, carries some serious implications of criminality," states the opinion. "The 'ex-felon' label was thus not substantially true."

In moving for dismissal, Huffington Post attempted to argue that Arpaio was libel-proof.

Lamberth shoots this down.

The erroneous claim Arpaio was sent to prison, writes the judge, "was a distinct harm that could have damaged Mr. Arpaio's reputation even further, so the Court holds that he is not a libel-proof plaintiff under these circumstances."

Instead, Rolling Stone and Huffington Post are allowed to escape the lawsuit thanks to the Supreme Court's landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times Co v. Sullivan, which decided that in the interest of free expression, there should be breathing room for innocent errors in discussing public figures.

"Mr. Arpaio's complaint does not come close to adequately pleading facts of actual malice," states the opinion. "The first attempt alleges that 'defendants acted with actual malice insofar as they knew that the statements made against Plaintiff Arpaio were false and/or recklessly disregarded their falsity.' This allegation is nothing more than a 'threadbare recital' of the definition of actual malice."

As for the second attempt from Arpaio, it has to do with supposed political bias on the part of reporters at those news outlets.

The judge shrugs it off by writing, "Even assuming the alleged 'leftist enmity' is real, the motivations behind defendants' communications — inspired by political differences or otherwise — do not impact whether defendants acted with actual malice as a matter of law. ... The court will not pry open the gates of discovery just because Mr. Arpaio believes the erroneous communications were motivated by differences in political opinions."

If Arpaio chooses to appeal, that subject will most likely be the focus. In dismissing the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) — failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted — rather than pursuant to D.C.'s anti-SLAPP Act, the judge dodges a hot topic among appellate courts.