Appeals Court Says Former Trump Advisor Can't Sue Over Reporting Based On Court Documents
from the sworn-statements-considered-truthful-until-otherwise-indicated dept
You can be angry about things said about you in court filings. But you really can’t sue about them. Reporting based on court documents is almost (!) always protected by the First Amendment. After all, those making the statements in court are swearing what they’re saying is true. Those reporting on sworn statements have no reason to believe otherwise, even if it’s eventually revealed the assertions were false.
That’s the tough lesson being learned by Jason Miller, a former Trump advisor who sued Gizmodo for reporting on court filings stating he had spiked a smoothie with an abortion pill to head off an inconvenient pregnancy. Miller has always claimed this accusation is false. Splinter — a now-defunct website owned by Gizmodo — reported on allegations made by another Trump staffer, A.J. Delgado, back in 2018.
Since then, Miller has been trying to sue Gizmodo for defamation. But there’s no defamation here, as the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms in its decision [PDF]. The lawsuit was filed in New York, which activates local civil rights laws which grant a “fair and true report” privilege to journalists who report on court filings. That proves instrumental in this dismissal, even though the First Amendment would have covered it as well.
The allegations Miller sued over are incredibly disturbing.
On Friday, September 14, 2018, Ms. Delgado filed a supplement to an earlier motion for the court to consider a psychological evaluation of Mr. Miller. Essentially, the supplement stated that Ms. Delgado was informed in the summer of 2018 that Mr. Miller (while married) had an affair in 2012 with a stripper in Florida referred to as Jane Doe; that Mr. Miller had sexual intercourse with Ms. Doe; that Ms. Doe became pregnant; that Mr. Miller visited Ms. Doe and gave her a beverage which, unbeknownst to her, contained an abortion pill; that Ms. Doe wound up in a hospital emergency room, bleeding heavily, and almost went into a coma; that the pill induced an abortion; and that Ms. Doe’s unborn child died. The supplement identified Ms. Delgado’s initial source for this information and stated that Ms. Doe had later confirmed the story to a journalist.
Miller tried to have this sealed, claiming it would (obviously) harm his reputation and adversely affect paternity proceedings he was currently involved in. Before any action could be taken, Splinter posted an article by Katherine Krueger that ran under this title:
Court Docs Allege Ex-Trump Staffer Drugged Woman He Got Pregnant with ‘Abortion Pill’
There’s nothing untrue about the headline. That’s exactly what the court documents alleged. The body of the article expanded on the claims made by A.J. Delgado, reporting only about what was contained in the statement.
Nevertheless, Jason Miller sued. That the document was later sealed by the court doesn’t matter. For a brief period of time it could be accessed by anyone. That it was accessed by a site with some reach doesn’t change anything.
Miller and the person supposedly slipped the abortion pill swore in court this incident never happened. Denials abounded. For better or for worse, these statements don’t matter: what was reported on at the time it was reported is protected by New York law, if not the First Amendment. The district court agreed with Gizmodo. So does the Eleventh Circuit. The only hitch is the state’s matrimonial proceedings laws, which can sometimes result in the stripping of this privilege, given the sensitive (and often heated) results of those proceedings.
Ultimately, the rights granted to journalists trump the rights granted to combatants in “matrimonial proceedings.”
[W]e note that Shiles has not been extended to reports of public matrimonial proceedings, even though, like sealed records, they are inherently personal in nature, and the allegations made and voiced in such proceedings can be used to promote public scandal, damage reputations, or coerce a settlement.
That’s the lesson to be learned here. If documents are available — even temporarily — to the public, they can’t be considered the basis for defamation. They’re sworn statements and should be treated as true until a court says otherwise. A regular person could have drawn the same conclusions from the submitted statements and posted their conclusions on their own. Just because the same thing happened on a website with considerable inbound traffic doesn’t change anything. The privilege afforded by the state covers it. And so does the First Amendment, even if the court doesn’t have to reach that conclusion.