Court Tosses $100 Million Defamation Suit Brought By Former Trump Spokesman Over Reporting On Court Documents

from the that's-not-how-defamation-works dept

A federal court has dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought against the Splinter website by a former Trump staffer. Jason Miller, a Trump campaign spokesman, sued after Splinter published an article that included allegations made by another Trump staffer Miller had an affair with. The allegations being sued over weren’t your normal allegations. These allegations were made in court by A.J. Delgado, Miller’s affair partner who later had Miller’s child.

Whether or not the allegations made by Delgado were true is irrelevant. Miller may have been correct his reputation had been damaged by the publication of these court documents (but $100 million-worth?), but the fact remains they were court documents. Filing a defamation lawsuit over reporting on court documents is per se stupid.

The thing about allegations made in court is that, while they can be defamatory, they cannot be sued over. Miller understood at least this much, it appears, because he didn’t sue the staffer he had an affair with. He instead sued Splinter, which published an article containing the court document with the allegations in it. Miller may have thought he had found a softer target. But he was wrong, as the federal court points out.

Reporting on court documents is protected under New York law. Splinter invoked this law to defend its reporting. The court agrees the law applies. Because it does, it has no reason to examine any other of Miller’s claims. From the decision [PDF]:

Under New York’s fair report privilege, codified in section 74 of its Civil Rights Law, “A civil action cannot be maintained against any person, firm, or corporation, for the publication of a fair and true report of any judicial proceeding . . . .” N.Y. Civ. Rights Law § 74 (alteration and emphasis added). The purpose of the statutory privilege is to protect reports of judicial proceedings “made in the public interest.”

Because Splinter was honest about how it obtained this document and, crucially, included the document itself in its post so readers could draw their own conclusions about the contained allegations, the court finds it fulfilled the requirements of the state law on court document reporting.

With the summary judgment standard in mind, review of the record shows the Article: (a) states the allegations come from an “explosive new court filing” in the “ongoing custody battle” between Plaintiff and Delgado (Article 2); (b) describes the “acrimony” between Plaintiff and Delgado (id. 4); (c) describes how Delgado obtained the information (see id.); (d) quotes the victim’s alleged reaction to the journalist, exactly as it is quoted in the Supplement (see id. (quoting Jane Doe stating: “Yes, that happened to me — how did you know? Who told you?” (internal quotation marks omitted)), see also Supplement 9 (same)); and significantly (e) embeds a full copy of the Supplement, so readers can review the Supplement without leaving the webpage (see Defs.’ SOF ¶ 91). Considering these undisputed facts, the Article is a substantially accurate report on the Supplement under New York law.

Always post documents. It’s amazing how many reporters treat court records as privileged information, limiting readers to the journalist’s interpretation of a ruling or filing. More generally, suing over reporting on court documents is a bad idea. If you can’t sue people for what they say about you in court, it would seem to follow that suing for reporting on what people said about you in court is a non-starter.

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