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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Devin Nunes wins a small victory, for now

To show I can write about something other than SB8: This terrible Eighth Circuit opinion. The court holds that Devin Nunes did not sufficiently plead actual malice against Esquire and Ryan Lizza over publication of an article about Nunes' family's farm, because he had not sufficiently pleaded actual malice. (Nunes acknowledged he had not done so--he asked the court to reconsider the standard, which it obviously cannot do). But the court reversed dismissal of a claim against Lizza for retweeting a link to the story two months Nunes filed his original complaint. Retweeting constitutes republication. And because Lizza retweeted after the lawsuit denied the story, it was "plausible that Lizza, at that point, engaged in 'the purposeful avoidance of the truth.'"

This cannot be right. The denial or contesting of allegations, without more, cannot plausibly establish knowledge or reckless disregard as to truth of the statements, presumably in the face of other reasons to believe the story (which is why they published it). The implication of this is that a defamation claim can survive 12(b)(6) by alleging that someone retweeted the disputed story knowing that the target of the story has sued or otherwise contested its truth. Or, one step further, a plaintiff could survive 12(b)(6) by pleading that the reporter published the story despite pre-publication denials of the content. Either of those puts the defendant on notice of the denial, which raises the same plausible inference the defendant "purposefully avoided" the truth.

I doubt Nunes survives summary judgment, because I doubt he can establish evidence beyond his denial for Lizza to disbelieve the article. That is not enough to establish actual malice by clear-and-convincing evidence, as required. Still, letting this get beyond 12(b)(6) is not good. It raises again whether plausibility should account for a higher standard of persuasion, as it does on summary judgment.

And just to tie this back to SB8, because that is my life right now: No one seems to believe that Lizza was denied judicial review of his First Amendment rights by having to defend a lawsuit.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 15, 2021 at 06:22 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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