The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently dismissed a case against three media corporations – CNN, Rolling Stone, and HuffPost – and several employees of those corporations for publishing or broadcasting allegedly defamatory statements regarding Joseph Arpaio’s 2017 criminal contempt of court conviction.

Arpaio is no stranger to public controversy. While serving as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona from 1993 to 2017, Arpaio was often criticized for, among other things, his office’s policing tactics in Latino neighborhoods. In one lawsuit against him, Arpaio and his office were enjoined from detaining people “based only on knowledge or reasonable belief . . . that [they were] unlawfully present within the United States[.]” Arpaio ignored the court’s order and continued to engage in conduct that violated the injunction. In July 2017, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court (a misdemeanor) for willfully disobeying the injunction. In August 2017, President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio before he was sentenced. In January 2018, Arpaio then decided it was a good time to run for the U.S. Senate.

CNN, Rolling Stone, and HuffPost each published a story about Arpaio’s Senate run and colorful background. CNN anchor Chris Cuomo introduced a report about Arpaio’s Senate run and erroneously referred to him as a convicted felon. (The report itself correctly stated that Arpaio was convicted of a misdemeanor and provided context for the crime.) Rolling Stone published an article about Arpaio and erroneously referred to him as an “ex-felon.” HuffPost published an article about Arpaio and erroneously stated that Arpaio had spent time in prison for his contempt of court conviction. The three corporations corrected their statements when they learned of their errors.

Arpaio alleged that he suffered “widespread ridicule and humiliation and . . . severe loss of reputation” as a result of the defendants’ conduct and sued the defendants for defamation, tortious interference with prospective business relations, and false light. To plead a defamation claim under District of Columbia law, Arpaio must allege: (1) a false and defamatory statement; (2) published without privilege to a third party; (3) made with the requisite fault; and (4) damages. Because Arpaio is a public figure, he must also allege that the defendants acted with actual malice. To plead actual malice, Arpaio must allege that the defendants acted with “knowledge that [the communication] was false or with reckless disregard of whether [the communication] was false or not.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 280 (1964).

The defendants filed motions to dismiss Arpaio’s claims. All three corporations argued that Arpaio’s defamation claim should be dismissed because: (1) their statements were substantially true; and (2) even if they were not, Arpaio failed to allege any facts tending to prove actual malice. In addition, HuffPost argued that Arpaio was a libel-proof plaintiff.

Substantial Truth. The Court dismissed Arpaio’s defamation claim against CNN based on the substantial truth defense. Truth is a complete defense in a defamation action, and a communication can be “true” even if it is only “substantially true” (i.e., not literally true). “Minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist . . . of the libelous charge [is] justified.” Masson v. New Yorker Mag., Inc., 501 U.S. 496, 517 (1991). The Court found that although Cuomo’s introductory statement was erroneous, the rest of the report was accurate and “contextualized” Cuomo’s error such that the “gist of the statements, when taken together,” was accurate.

The Court did not dismiss the defamation claims against Rolling Stone and HuffPost based on the substantial truth defense. The Rolling Stone article referred to Arpaio as an “ex-felon” and, unlike the CNN report, did not provide any context for that label. The HuffPost article’s reference to Arpaio spending time in prison was also not substantially true.

Libel-Proof Plaintiff. HuffPost argued that Arpaio was a libel-proof plaintiff because its erroneous statement, within the context of the entire article, could not damage Arpaio’s reputation any further. Courts apply the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine where “‘true statements in a particular publication’ have so badly damaged a plaintiff’s reputation ‘that minor false accusations within the same publication cannot result in further meaningful injury.'” Carpenter v. King, 792 F. Supp. 2d 29, 34 n.2 (D.D.C. 2011). The Court rejected this argument, holding that HuffPost‘s erroneous statement that Arpaio spent time in prison was distinct from the fact that Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court and, therefore, could damage his reputation even further.

Actual Malice. The Court dismissed Arpaio’s defamation claims against Rolling Stone and HuffPost because it held that Arpaio failed to allege facts that they acted with actual malice. In his complaint, Arpaio alleged that the defendants were motivated by “malice and leftist enmity” when they made their erroneous statements. The Court concluded that Arpaio failed to allege actual malice because the “motivations behind defendants’ communications . . . do not impact whether defendants acted with actual malice as a matter of law.” The Court declined to “pry open the gates of discovery” based solely on Arpaio’s belief that the statements “were motivated by differences in political opinions.”

The Court also dismissed Arpaio’s tortious interference with prospective business relations and false light claims because Arpaio could not use claims “stemming from the same allegedly defamatory communications to circumvent the constitutional requirements of a defamation claim.”

The Arpaio case illustrates the strength and importance of the First Amendment protections given to the press. The Court acknowledged that the burden of alleging articulable facts of actual malice is difficult to meet, especially when the parties have not yet engaged in discovery. Nevertheless, the Court emphasized that “without this safeguard [of actual malice], the threats of lawsuits would chill our precious First Amendment rights to freely engage in political discourse.”

The case is Arpaio v. Zucker, No. 1:18-cv-02894-RCL (D.D.C. Oct. 31, 2019), ECF No. 56.

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