California employers beware. In Tilkey v. Allstate Insurance Co., No. D074459 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 21, 2020) (Order), California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently affirmed a judgment on a theory of self-published defamation. In doing so, it held that the plaintiff, a former life insurance salesman for Allstate, was justly awarded damages based on his compulsion to recite the allegedly false allegations Allstate made for terminating his employment to prospective employers.
Continue Reading California Court Affirms Self-published Defamation Judgment

The Los Angeles County Superior Court recently granted an anti-SLAPP motion brought by the defendant, MBC Broadcasting, Inc. (MBC), in a defamation suit based on news broadcasts by MBC. MBC broadcast four news stories regarding allegations of improper corporal punishment and child abuse at Young Youth Core Academia (YYCA), an after-school academic program for children owned and operated by Helen Byon in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles. Following the broadcasts, Ms. Byon and her son (Plaintiffs) sued MBC for alleged defamatory statements. MBC subsequently filed a special motion to strike Plaintiffs’ claims pursuant to California Civil Procedure Code section 425.16, California’s anti-SLAPP statute.

Courts engage in a two-step process when considering an anti-SLAPP motion. On prong one, the defendant is required to make a “prima facie showing” that the plaintiff’s causes of action arise from a protected activity, which includes the defendant’s right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the court proceeds to prong two. There, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a reasonable probability of prevailing on the merits of the complaint.

The Court first held that MBC satisfied prong one because “news reporting on the serious topic of child abuse is an exercise of speech concerning an issue of public interest.” Therefore, MBC’s broadcasts constituted protected activity under section 425.16.


Continue Reading Court Slaps Down Corporal Punishment Defamation Case Against Broadcasting Corporation

Eric Wedgewood (creator of a once-popular meme account on social media) sued The Daily Beast Company LLC (Daily Beast) for defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). On March 11, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the Daily Beast’s motion to dismiss the complaint. See Wedgewood v. The Daily Beast Company LLC, No. 19 C 3470 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 11, 2020).

According to the Daily Beast article (see infra), Wedgewood has used many pseudonyms over the years, including the pen name Heiko Julien. On April 14, 2018, an anonymous user (not Wedgewood, but using the handle @HeikoJulien) began posting screenshots of direct messages that Wedgewood had allegedly sent to underage girls through a social media account. After eight days, the anonymous account was shut down.

Two weeks later, on April 25, 2018, the Daily Beast published an article titled “‘He Started Messaging Me When I Was 16’: Female Memers Slam ‘Content Zone’s’ Creator,” referring to Wedgewood. The article quoted two anonymous women who claimed that Wedgewood sent them inappropriate messages while they were underage, and it reported that Wedgewood had shut down his accounts after being accused of sending inappropriate messages to underage girls.


Continue Reading Court Dismisses Defamation Claim Against The Daily Beast

On November 19, 2019, the California Court of Appeal held that comments made by celebrity actor Shia LaBeouf in a private and isolated dispute were not a matter of public concern and, therefore, did not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.

The case, David Bernstein v. Shia LaBeouf, stems from an April 5, 2017 incident in which LaBeouf and his female companion walked into a Los Angeles bar appearing “significantly under the influence.”  When they were refused service by Bernstein, the establishment’s bartender, LaBeouf allegedly became angry, and called Bernstein a “fucking racist” and a “fuckin’ racist bitch” as he was being escorted out of the bar by security.  Video of the incident circulated quickly and widely, much of the internet praised and supported LaBeouf, and Bernstein’s life and reputation allegedly suffered.  Bernstein subsequently sued LaBeouf for assault, slander per se, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  LaBeouf responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that the speech giving rise to Bernstein’s claims (the insults hurled at Bernstein) was protected activity concerning a matter of public interest.

LaBeouf argued that his statements were protected speech because: (1) they occurred in a public place; (2) they were of interest to the public because they were published publicly on the internet; (3) LaBeouf is a celebrity; and (4) they contributed to the public debate on racism.

The trial court denied LaBeouf’s motion, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.  In declining to grant First Amendment protections to LaBeouf’s alleged name-calling, the Court of Appeal concluded that his statements were not made in connection with an issue of public interest.  The Court took care to narrow the scope of its ruling to the specific circumstances of LaBeouf’s case, however, namely the specific nature of LaBeouf’s speech.
Continue Reading Shia LaBeouf Walks Into a Bar . . . And Ends Up Losing an Anti-Slapp Motion

A circuit court in Cook County, Illinois granted summary judgment in favor of Crain Communications (a publishing company) and others for publishing an article in June 2016 that allegedly was defamatory against Joseph J. Fox, then co-founder and CEO of Ditto Holdings, Inc.

(See Fox v. Crain Communications, Inc., et al., Case No. 17L5955.)

The article, titled “Frustrated investors led Fox hunt in LA” in digital form and “The Elusive Fox Who Fled to L.A.” in print, addressed Ditto’s financial position, investigations launched by the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an employment lawsuit filed by a former Ditto executive, and testimonials from Ditto’s investors.

In his complaint, Fox alleged that the following statement and headlines in the article were false: a “federal judge in Chicago agreed with Simons, ordering Ditto in April to pay him $2.7 million” (the Judge Statement), “Frustrated investors led Fox hunt in LA,” and “The Elusive Fox Who Fled to L.A.” Fox claimed that Crain Communications, the company’s editor, and the reporter of the article (collectively, Crain Communications) knowingly published false and defamatory information about him.

Crain Communications moved for summary judgment on several bases, namely that:


Continue Reading Court Dismisses Defamation Claim Against Crain Communications

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the dismissal of a case against BuzzFeed, an internet media company, for publishing an allegedly libelous article about a British news agency, Central European News Ltd. (“CEN”), and its founder, Michael Leidig. See Leidig v. BuzzFeed, Inc., No. 19-851-cv (2d Cir. Dec. 19, 2019) (“Order”).

In April 2015, BuzzFeed published the article in question, entitled “The King of Bullsh*t News” (the “Article”). The Article addressed news stories on various bizarre topics sold by CEN to third-party English-language media services around the world. CEN’s stories reported, for example, that a two-headed goat was born on a farm in China, that a Russian woman killed her kitten by dying it pink, and that teenagers in China were walking cabbages on leashes to alleviate feelings of loneliness. The Article – based on many months of investigation conducted by BuzzFeed journalists – stated that “the evidence assembled by BuzzFeed News suggests that an alarming proportion of CEN’s ‘weird news’ stories are based on exaggeration, embellishment, and outright fabrication[.]”


Continue Reading BuzzFeed Wins Libel Suit Regarding “King of Bullsh*t News” Article

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.


Continue Reading Take More Than a New York Minute Before You Re-Tweet

On December 6, a federal jury in the Central District of California found that Tesla CEO Elon Musk did not defame cave diver Vernon Unsworth by referring to him in a tweet as “pedo guy.” Unsworth v. Musk, No. 2:18-cv-08048 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 6, 2019). Unsworth, who helped rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018, alleged that a series of tweets Musk published to his nearly 30 million Twitter followers were defamatory, falsely accused Mr. Unsworth of being a pedophile and child rapist, and caused Unsworth worldwide damage to his reputation and emotional distress. The jury deliberated for less than one hour before finding in favor of Musk.

During a CNN interview following the 2018 rescue, Unsworth had criticized Musk’s showing up to the cave site with a mini-submarine as a “PR stunt,” and said that the mini-submarine “had absolutely no chance of working” to save the boys. Unsworth’s complaint alleged that Musk retaliated against this criticism with a series of defamatory tweets and a series of defamatory emails sent to a Buzzfeed News reporter.


Continue Reading Does Elon Musk’s Defamation Defense Verdict Spell “Open Season” for Social Media Insults? Answer: Nope.

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.


Continue Reading Three Media Corporations Avoid Defamation Liability in Suit Brought by Joseph Arpaio

In an age where the luxurious lives of reality housewives populate millions of televisions throughout the country, the day-to-day activities of wealthy suburban moms are well known to Americans. Stephanie Smith, a wealthy mother of five young children living in the Pacific Palisades near the luxurious Los Angeles coastline, was one such woman. One noteworthy thing set Stephanie Smith apart, however – her multi-million-dollar marijuana empire.

Smith was a commercial real estate developer and landlord who leased her properties to marijuana growers. Those growers allegedly paid her more than three times the standard rent and produced tens of thousands of weed plants. On December 13, 2017, Smith’s weed-growing warehouses became public knowledge after police raided her home and discovered the plants.

Newspapers immediately picked up the story, calling Smith a “Queenpin” and her property “a weed fortress.” Smith v. Palisades, No. B292107 2019 WL 4744765 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 2019) at *1. Palisades News, a local community newspaper, published an article stating that Smith was “busted” for running an illegal marijuana-growing operation of a size normally associated with a “drug lord” and that Smith made millions of dollars per month from the operation. Id. Three months after the raid, Smith sued Palisades News for defamation (libel), false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress in Smith v. Palisades News.


Continue Reading Court Strikes Alleged Marijuana Queenpin’s Defamation Claim