A recent decision from a United States District Court in New York dismissing a defamation claim against cable television host and national correspondent Joy Reid provides a mixed bag of findings in the world of defamation lawsuits. The central issue in Roslyn La Liberte v. Joy Reid was whether the defendant, Reid, had defamed the plaintiff when she re-posted content about La Liberte on social media. Although the decision is generally a garden variety dismissal of defamation claims, the court also rejected the defendant’s Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) defense and applied California’s anti-SLAPP statute to award Reid her attorneys’ fees and costs.
The posts at issue concerned a photograph of La Liberte, in which she appears to be shouting at a teenage boy. The photograph was taken at a city council meeting for a highly politicized senate bill, intended to limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. A few days after the photo was taken, an activist named Alan Vargas tweeted the image and suggested that La Liberte was yelling: “You are going to be the first deported . . . dirty Mexican.” Reid re-tweeted the photograph on two separate occasions, first on social media along with the caption:
He showed up to rally to defend immigrants . . . She showed up too, in her MAGA hat, and screamed, “You are going to be the first deported” . . . “dirty Mexican!” He is 14 years old. She is an adult. Make the picture black and white and it could be the 1950s and the desegregation of a school. Hate is real, y’all. It hasn’t even really gone away.
Reid’s caption of what “happened” appeared to be inaccurate. The boy was subsequently interviewed on a local TV station, where he stated that La Liberte had been keeping the conversation civil. After this interview aired, La Liberte’s son sent two emails to Reid advising her that her social media post was inaccurate and forwarded her a link to the interview. After receiving these emails, Reid posted the inflammatory photograph again on social media. This second post included the original image of La Liberte alongside a photograph of protestors in Little Rock, Arkansas from 1957 with the caption:
It was inevitable that this image would be made. It’s also easy to look at old black and white photos and think: I can’t believe that person screaming at a child, with their face twisted in rage, is real. B[ut] everyone one of them were. History sometimes repeats. And it is full of rage. Hat tip to @joseiswriting. #regram #history #chooselove.
La Liberte sued Reid, claiming that her posts were defamatory.
Reid’s first defense under the CDA was rejected. Section 230 of the CDA provides that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information provider.” This section generally limits defamation liability for re-tweets or re-posts in our digital era. Here, however, the New York court ruled that Section 230 did not bar La Liberte’s claims because Reid had allegedly “altered” the original posts, making her an information content provider and not subject to Section 230 of the CDA.
Although Reid’s CDA defense failed, she ultimately prevailed in her argument that La Liberte had failed to state a defamation claim because she could not show that Reid acted with actual malice. Reid’s success hung on whether La Liberte qualified as a “limited public figure,” which would allow the court to apply the “actual malice” standard. The court found that because La Liberte had attended multiple city council meetings and spoken about the bill publicly, and because she had appeared in a photograph in the Washington Post that included a story about the controversy, she had injected herself into a public controversy and had therefore become a limited public figure. As a public figure, La Liberte was required to show that Reid acted with actual malice, which requires a plaintiff to establish that the defamatory statements were made with the knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.
The court found that the first post was not written with actual malice because there was no evidence that Reid had knowledge of or acted with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the matters stated. Although the second post was written after Reid received the emails from La Liberte’s son, she prevailed because it was deemed non-actionable opinion: it simply discussed the juxtaposition of the La Liberte photo and the photo from the 1950s. In other words, the court found that La Liberte did not allege the factual statements necessary to underlie a viable defamation claim.
After conducting an analysis on the application of the California anti-SLAPP statute in federal court, the court not only dismissed La Liberte’s claims under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; it also found that it could strike the suit under the anti-SLAPP statute, paving the way for Reid to recover attorneys’ fees.
La Liberte has appealed the decision.