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Supreme Court Rejects Case Challenging ‘Actual Malice’ Defamation Standard; Thomas Dissents

After the Supreme Court refused to hear a case from a Christian non-profit that sued the hard-left Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for defamation, Justice Clarence Thomas issued a blistering dissent, stating that he wanted to reconsider the “actual malice” standard for libel protecting the “New York Times and its progeny.” Thomas was referencing the case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

The Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari to Coral Ridge Ministries Media, which had applied to receive donations through AmazonSmile in 2017, but was then told it was ineligible because the SPLC had designated Coral Ridge a “hate group,” prompting Coral Ridge to sue for defamation.

The SPLC said Coral Ridge was a “hate group” because of its Biblical views concerning human sexuality and marriage.

“Coral Ridge maintained that although it ‘opposes homosexual conduct’ based on its religious beliefs, it is in no sense a ‘hate group,” Thomas noted, then quoted from Coral Ridge’s claims: “To the contrary, it ‘has nothing but love for people who engage in homosexual conduct’ and ‘has never attacked or maligned anyone on the basis of engaging in homosexual conduct.’”

“Coral Ridge alleged that SPLC was aware that it was not a ‘hate group,’ but falsely labeled it one anyway to ‘destroy the Ministry’ by ‘dissuading people and organizations from donating to [it].’” Thomas continued. “SPLC responded that its ‘hate group’ designation was protected by the First Amendment.”

The District Court dismissed Coral Ridge’s complaint for failure to state a claim, asserting that as a “public figure,” Coral Ridge had to prove three elements to rebut SPLC’s First Amendment defense: the “hate group” claim had to be (1) provably false, (2) actually false, and (3) made with “actual malice.”

Thomas continued:

The court concluded that SPLC’s “hate group” designation was not provably false because “hate group’ has a highly debatable and ambiguous meaning. Additionally, the court held that Coral Ridge had not plausibly alleged that SPLC acted with “actual malice,” as defined by this Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

Then the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision but based its own decision exclusively on the “actual malice” standard.

“A ‘public figure’ laboring under the ‘actual malice’ standard must prove that a defamatory statement was made ‘with knowledge that it was false or with reckless dis regard of whether it was false or not,’” Thomas explained. “Coral Ridge now asks us to reconsider the ‘actual malice’ standard.”

He added bluntly, “As I have said previously, ‘we should.’”

“I would grant certiorari in this case to revisit the ‘actual malice’ standard,” Thomas declared. “This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’”

He concluded:

SPLC’s “hate group” designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. It placed Coral Ridge on an interactive, online “Hate Map” and caused Coral Ridge concrete financial injury by excluding it from the AmazonSmile donation program. Nonetheless, unable to satisfy the “almost impossible” actual-malice standard this Court has imposed, Coral Ridge could not hold SPLC to account for what it maintains is a blatant falsehood.

Because the Court should not “insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits” unless “the First Amendment requires” us to do so, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

 

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