US judges Thomas and Gorsuch question defamation protections for media

By Andrew Chung

July 2 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a case challenging defamation protections for journalists and media, but Tory Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch disagreed with the action and questioned those protections enshrined in a landmark 1964 decision.

Citing a rapidly changing and increasingly disinformation-ridden media environment, Thomas and Gorsuch said in separate opinions the court should take a fresh look at its precedents that make it harder for public figures to sue for libel. .

The court refused to hear the appeal of Shkelzën Berisha, the son of a former Albanian prime minister, regarding his libel case for allegations of corruption against him made in a 2015 book by author Guy Lawson entitled ” Arms and the Dudes “. The book became the 2016 Hollywood movie “War Dogs” starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller.

A lower court ruled in favor of Lawson, book publisher Simon & Schuster, and several other defendants, as it determined that Berisha was unable to prove that the allegations of her involvement in a trafficking scandal weapons had been made with “real malice”. This standard, which protects against defamation suits, involves statements made knowing they were false or recklessly ignoring whether they were true or false.

The standard was set in the 1964 court decision in a case called New York Times v. Sullivan.

Thomas and Gorsuch said the court should have taken the appeal. They said that in today’s media environment, real maliciousness can protect lies instead of the truth, with real consequences. Citing the bogus “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that claimed that a Washington pizzeria was a front for a pedophile ring run by former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Thomas said: “Public or private figure, lies do real wrongs ”.

Thomas previously urged the court there is two years reconsidering his defamation precedents when he refused to consider relaunching a libel lawsuit against actor Bill Cosby by a woman named Kathrine McKee who said the artist falsely called her a liar after the ‘have accused of rape.

Thomas mentioned McKee again on Friday, saying that “this court should certainly not take away a woman’s right to defend her reputation in court just because she accuses a powerful man of rape.” Cosby was released from jail on Wednesday after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his conviction for sexual assault in a separate case.

Gorsuch said the justifications for the actual malicious standard may be less in an era when changes in technology and social media mean disinformation can be better amplified and more profitable than traditional news with fact-checkers and editors.

“Not only did the doctrine turn into a subsidy for published lies on a scale no one could have predicted, it left far more people without redress than anyone could have predicted,” Gorsuch said. .

Berisha sued Lawson and the other defendants in federal court in 2017 for brief passages from Lawson’s book, which recounted how three Miami Beach “stoner dudes” signed a US $ 300 million defense contract in 2006 to provide ammunition to the Afghan army, and sought to accomplish this by procuring weapons from stockpiles in Albania.

The book recounted their relationship with an Albanian mafia linked to the government. He placed Berisha in one of the meetings, describing him as having “black hair, a soft chin and shark eyes” and accused him of being part of the corrupt arms trade cabal.

The three Miami men were ultimately sentenced in the United States on federal fraud charges.

In 2020, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Court of Appeals launched the lawsuit. The 11th Circuit found that Berisha could not overcome the first Amendment free speech protections of the US Constitution for those accused of defamation by public officials or prominent figures, as recognized by a series of Supreme Court precedents. going back to New York Times v. Sullivan.

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Berisha said those precedents should be set aside to limit the standard of actual malice to public officials only.

(Report by Andrew Chung in New York, editing by Will Dunham)

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