3:13pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Ex-Fugees Rapper Gets Good News, Bad News in Defamation Lawsuit Against New York Post
Celebrities who sue news organizations over untruthful statements were handed a mixed ruling on Monday from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The opinion (read here in full) addresses Pras Michel, the ex-Fugees rapper who brought a $30 million defamation lawsuit against the New York Post in reaction to a Page Six article that claimed he was a "no-show" at a charity event and had "bailed on his own 9/11 benefit concert."
The lawsuit was initially thrown out by a district court judge who accepted the defendant's position that the statements in dispute were not capable of defamatory meaning. The New York Post argued that the statements about his "no-show" constituted opinion, especially given the fact that they appeared in the gossip pages of the paper. Eleventh Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus flatly rejects this logic.
"First, that the article appeared on Page Six — a well-known gossip column — does not require us to conclude that reasonable readers would interpret the reporting of facts on the page to be statements of opinion," writes Marcus. "While it is surely true that a reader would not expect to encounter the type of hard-hitting investigative journalism that might appear on the front page of The New York Times or the Washington Post, the mere placement of a story in a particular section of the paper is not enough to categorically preclude it from a defamation action."
Pras wins here — and his attorney Michael Gottlieb at Boies, Schiller and Flexner presents the outcome as meaning that "the New York Post cannot create a liability-free-zone for the reporting it does in Page Six" — but he and other celebrities hardly got the better end of Monday's opinion.
That's because the 11th Circuit also rules that the district court judge properly dismissed the case for a different reason. As a public figure, Michel needed to plead that the statements were published with actual malice.
"Relying on a series of cases issued before the Supreme Court decided Iqbal and Twombly, Michel claims that defamation suits involving public figures, and thus requiring an allegation of actual malice, should not be dismissed without first conducting discovery. But these holdings are completely out of line with the current state of the law. Iqbal itself directly held that malice and other degrees of intent are subject to the plausibility pleading standard."
In other words, when celebrities want to bring defamation lawsuits, they need to put some meat on the bones of an allegation that a defendant media company had knowledge of false information or recklessly disregarded the truth. Otherwise, in the interest of serving the First Amendment and saving publishers from defending expensive lawsuits, judges are free to reject a celebrity's defamation action at an early stage.
What's more, Marcus writes that defendant's state of mind is probative and that "a failure to investigate, standing on its own, does not indicate the presence of actual malice."
The 11th Circuit opinion states that Michel can't get away with merely alleging that the New York Post was "reckless" in a conclusory manner. The opinion also points to the article itself, which indicates that the reporters spoke with sources.
"That many of the sources were not identified by name does not render them or the reliance on them invalid," writes Marcus. "Indeed, reliance on unnamed sources is typical in gossip columns (and in much other reporting as well). Even if the statements made in the article were false as an objective matter, the allegations here are insufficient to show that the defendants knew they were false or acted in reckless disregard of their falsity. Rather, the record before the district judge indicates that the reporters conducted some outreach and engaged in due diligence."
Michel gets another shot at his $30 million defamation lawsuit because the appeals court says his lawsuit should have been dismissed with an opportunity to amend his complaint to plead further facts in support of his claims. But he's hardly been given an easy road towards moving his revived lawsuit any bit forward.