Well known for their highly publicized interactions with the legal system, Rose McGowan and her former defense attorney Jose Baez faced off this year over conflict of interest allegations in Baez v. McGowan, 2020 Ill. Cir. LEXIS 458 (2020).  Jose Baez is best known for his successful defense of Casey Anthony, a young woman tried for the murder of her two-year-old daughter in 2011, while actress, activist, and author Rose McGowan famously accused media producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.  McGowan is widely considered to be a fervent #MeToo supporter and touts nearly two million followers across her Twitter and Instagram profiles.

McGowan first hired Baez as her trial attorney in 2018 after McGowan was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance in Virginia.  The prosecution alleged that McGowan concealed a baggie of cocaine in her wallet, which was discovered after she accidentally left it behind on an airplane.  Although McGowan theorized that Weinstein paid off airline staff to plant the cocaine as part of a conspiracy to silence his rape accusers, she ultimately agreed to a plea deal and did not present the Weinstein theory to the court.


Continue Reading Demonstrating the Strength of the “Opinion Defense,” Rose McGowan Defeats Defamation Suit

Lauded as the “the most important law protecting free speech”[1] and the law that “gave us the modern internet,”[2] Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (Section 230) has been a fixture of recent internet policy debates and blamed for everything from the proliferation of sex trafficking[3] to enabling anti-conservative social media bias[4].

Section 230 says, “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”[5]

Those 26 words shield online platforms from liability arising from hosting or making available third-party or user-generated content.[6] In other words, online platforms are considered intermediaries that cannot be legally liable for what users post on their platforms. However, Section 230 does not provide immunity to the actual creator of content. The author of a defamatory post could still be held responsible for any defamatory material they post.


Continue Reading Section 230 – Everything You Love and Hate About the Internet

The District of Columbia Circuit Court recently dismissed attorney John Szymkowicz’s defamation lawsuit against the author of the website “Legal Profession Blog,” finding that Szymkowicz failed to demonstrate that his potential damages met the $75,000 threshold required to establish federal jurisdiction.

In Szymkowicz v. Frisch, No. CV 19-3329 (BAH), 2020 WL 4432240 (D.D.C. July 31, 2020), Georgetown University Law Center professor Szymkowicz brought a claim for defamation, invasion of privacy—false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from posts by Frisch, which claimed he had committed elder abuse against a client. Szymkowicz alleged that the posts injured his personal and professional reputation, injured his standing in the community, cost him a loss of income and business opportunities, and prompted him to experience “mental anguish and personal humiliation.”
Continue Reading D.C. District Court Decries Vague Assertion of Damages

In a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit recently affirmed a district court’s ruling that CBS News did not defame a pharmacist in its reporting on the opioid crisis, agreeing that the statements at issue were substantially true. See Ballengee v. CBS Broadcasting, Inc., No. 18-2018 (4th Cir. Aug. 3, 2020).

The ruling protects CBS’s award-winning investigative reporting on the opioid crisis.  It also demonstrates the enduring need for defamation law’s “substantial truth doctrine,” which excuses minor factual inaccuracies as long as the substance, gist, or sting of the statement remains true.  See Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, 501 U.S. 496, 517 (1991).
Continue Reading Fourth Circuit Rejects Pharmacist’s Opioid Defamation Claims Against CBS

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