HuffPo Smearing of Senate Candidate Not Libel, Court Says
A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit accusing the Huffington Post of libeling a former U.S. Senate candidate from Minnesota by calling him an arsonist in a story headline.
Jack Shepard, who ran for the federal office in 2010, objected to a HuffPo story headlined, “Support Jack Shepard, The Arsonist, For Congress.” He had been accused of arson in 1982 but was never convicted.
The lawsuit also claimed that the news story libeled the candidate because it reported that he had been removed from a ballot in 2004 without adding that he was later reinstated, and that it noted that he had been convicted of sex and drug crimes without explaining what he claimed were extenuating circumstances.
Shephard also objected to the story’s insinuation that he was hiding from his crimes in Italy, where he has lived since 1982.
A district court dismissed the claim, and last week the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Finding of No Merit
Shepard’s complaint was never going to get a full hearing because he filed outside the Minnesota two-year statute of limitations for libel suits. His attorneys argued that because the story had subsequently appeared on the HuffPo site after its initial publication, the statute should have been reset, but the judges nixed that attempt based on case law ruling that the limitation timer starts when an article “is first released to the public.”
More interesting than the time-bar issue was that the district judge, Paul A. Magnuson, also pointed out that Shepard’s suit would have failed on the merits, even had it been filed in a timely manner.
Judge Magnuson found that “[t]hree of the allegedly defamatory statements are not actionable because they are either true or permissible hyperbole.” The candidate had been removed from the ballot and he had been convicted for sex and drug crimes, and the claim he was hiding in Italy was considered “protected rhetorical hyperbole.” Failing to include the broader context of true statements is not libel.
Furthermore, the judge wrote, the body of the text did clarify that Shepard had been accused, not convicted, of arson, so that claim also did not meet the standard of libel.
Intertwined with the First Amendment
Libel laws attempt to strike a balance between freedom of speech and the right of the individual to protect his good name.
“Defamation, including libel and slander, is a personal injury action that requires publication of a false statement of fact about a person that harms that person’s reputation,” explains Ruthann Robson, a professor at the CUNY School of Law. “The doctrine is intertwined with the First Amendment and the question becomes whether the defendant had a free speech right or a free press right to make the statement.”
Newspapers have broad rights to publish information they reasonably believe to be true. “The underlying rationale is that we want debate on public issues to be ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ as the Court said in the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan,” Robson says.
In the Sullivan case, the Times was sued for running an advertorial by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King that contained factual errors about abuses committed by Alabama authorities during the civil rights movement. The Supreme Court overturned a finding of libel, for the first time subjecting the notion of defamation to serious First Amendment scrutiny. To punish every mistake printed in a newspaper, especially unintentional errors, would have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press, the court opined.
The bar for libel for a public figure, a category into which Shepard certainly fell when running for Senate, is also higher than that for a private person. “Later cases make clear that if the plaintiff is a ‘public figure’ then the defendant must have ‘actual malice,'” says Robson. “It’s not sufficient if the defendant was simply negligent, or as it seems here, sloppy.”