Devin Nunes Asks Appeals Court To Invalidate Bedrock Supreme Court 1st Amendment Ruling
from the protect-and-defend-the-constitution dept
A year and a half ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that he thought that NY Times v. Sullivan was wrongly decided. This is perhaps the most important 1st Amendment ruling from the Supreme Court ever, and establishes the “actual malice” standard for defamation of public figures. There’s more to it than this, but the ruling basically says that for it to be defamation of a public figure, whoever is making the statement should more or less know that the information they’re passing along is false. It’s a high standard, but that’s in order to protect the 1st Amendment. Unfortunately, Thomas seems to think that it’s time to revisit the issue:
We should not continue to reflexively apply this policy driven approach to the Constitution. Instead, we should carefully examine the original meaning of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. If the Constitution does not require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits, then neither should we.
Of course, if we go back and “carefully examine the original meaning of the First and Fourteenth” Amendment, it’s possible one could conclude that all of defamation law violates the 1st Amendment in suppressing speech (the 14th Amendment part just extends the 1st Amendment restrictions beyond Congress to state laws as well). But still, as we discussed at the time, this was surprising from Thomas, as there seems to be basically no interest anywhere else in revisiting the NYTimes v. Sullivan ruling. It’s not like other instances where you have a bunch of people itching to revisit old cases.
The question, then, is whether or not anyone would take up Thomas’s publicized desire to revisit this standard. And apparently he’s found a taker in… Rep. Devin Nunes. As you’ll recall, Devin Nunes has been filing a series of SLAPP suits against the media and his critics. The cases haven’t been going well for him at all. A couple of months ago, a judge easily tossed out one of Nunes’ cases. This one, filed in Iowa (a state without an anti-SLAPP law) against Esquire magazine and reporter Ryan Lizza over a great article, “Devin Nunes?s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret.
As the judge pointed out, nothing in the complaint alleges anything possibly defamatory.
The statements at issue also do not assert provably false facts, nor do they imply the existence of undisclosed facts. The statements that plaintiff has a secret, hid or concealed his family?s move, or conspired with others to hide the move do not have ?precise core meaning for which a consensus of understanding exists.? … There is no precise meaning for how many people can know a fact for it to remain a ?secret? nor is there an accepted line between ?hiding? or ?concealing? a fact and simply declining to publicize it. Likewise, in this context there is no precise meaning of ?conspiracy.? For the same reasons, the challenged statements are not ?objectively capable of proof or disproof[.]?…
Nunes and his lawyer, Steven Biss, have since appealed that ruling to the 8th Circuit appeals court (first noted by Nunes’ hometown Fresno Bee, whose parent company Nunes is suing in a different case). The full appeal is not yet public (for reasons I don’t understand it shows in the docket, but is not available to download). What is available, however, is a Designation and Statement of the Issues, which at least details what Nunes will be arguing in the appeal. And the key point? They’re attacking the NYT v. Sullivan standard:
1. Did the District Court follow the proper standard in evaluating Nunes?s amended complaint or did the District Court view the amended complaint in a light most favorable to the Defendants?
2. Is New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) good law? Does the United States Constitution require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits? Should Sullivan be reconsidered and overturned?
3. Did the District Court err in applying Sullivan in this case?
4. Did Nunes plausibly allege that the Defendants published the Article with actual malice?
Those are the first four of 14 issues with the other issues basically saying that even if Lizza’s articles don’t state any defamatory facts, Nunes wants the court to say that “rhetorical questions” in the article “imply the existence of defamatory facts.” All of this seems unlikely to be successful. Extremely unlikely.
In general, courts will avoid dealing with deeper constitutional questions, especially when cases can be dealt with in a more straightforward manner, and this case can be (and was) easily dismissed because nothing in the article is a defamatory statement of fact. And, of course, it’s not for an appeals court to tell the Supreme Court that its earlier ruling was “bad law.” Of course, the goal here seems to be to get the Supreme Court to revisit NYT v. Sullivan, as Thomas as suggested is necessary. So, chances are they know this is a loser in the appeals court, but are hoping that they can then appeal it to the Supreme Court later. That… also seems unlikely to work. While Thomas has indicated he’s interested in revisiting this standard, it would be surprising if any of the other Justices agree. And it seems likely that the entirety of the media industry would blow its lid if this issue was up for revisiting at the Supreme Court.
But, really, this is quite telling. Nunes seems to think that he — a public elected official — should not have to face mean comments about himself. That’s ridiculous. He’s a public official. He should grow a thicker skin, not try to destroy the 1st Amendment because his ego can’t take people highlighting his family trying to quietly hide the fact that they moved their farm from California to Iowa.