‘Central Park Karen’ Loses Defamation Suit Against Employer That Fired Her Following Viral Video Of Her Calling Cops On A Black Birdwatcher
from the substantially-true-and-protected-opinion dept
The long saga of one of the most infamous internet “Karens” has come to a close as New York City resident Amy Cooper, a.k.a. “Central Park Karen,” has lost her defamation lawsuit against her former employer. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)
The same day unarmed black man George Floyd was being murdered by a white police officer, Amy Cooper was leveraging a specific form of white privilege to threaten a black man who had simply asked her to follow park rules and put her dog on a leash. Christian Cooper (no relation to Amy) was the black man threatened with police violence by a woman who apparently felt she herself was above the law (or, at least, park policies).
Cooper’s dog was unleashed in the Ramble, an area where leashing is required for the safety of the wildlife; she allegedly refused Christian Cooper’s request that her dog be leashed. When Christian beckoned the dog toward him with a dog treat, Amy yelled “Don’t you touch my dog!” Christian started recording Amy, who placed a call to 9-1-1, telling them “There is an African American man—I am in Central Park—he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog. Please send the cops immediately!”
Christian’s recording of Amy Cooper was uploaded to Facebook and soon went viral. Within hours of its release, Amy Cooper’s employer, investment firm Franklin Templeton, issued a statement saying it did not condone racism and was conducting an investigation. One day after this statement, Franklin Templeton fired Amy Cooper.
Cooper sued her former employer, alleging defamation. She argued that the company’s statement that it was conducting an investigation was false and that its reference to her as a racist was defamatory. But her arguments have failed to persuade a federal court that anything defamatory actually happened here.
The decision [PDF] says the things Cooper sued over were either substantially true or protected opinion, both of which are incapable of being defamatory. In addition, there’s no discrimination here either. Cooper claimed her firing was racially motivated. But, as the court points out, Cooper’s race was never the issue.
Plaintiff argues that “Defendants’ own words and actions provide the required plausible support for a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.” Specifically, she contends that Defendants “implicated the race of their employee with each of [their] communications to the public, by repeatedly connecting [their] stated stance against racism with their termination of  Plaintiff.”
This argument merits little attention. None of Franklin Templeton’s public statements made any mention of Plaintiff’s race. Defendants’ repeated condemnations of racism, moreover, did not “implicate [Plaintiff’s] race” because—as the Second Circuit has squarely held—“‘[r]acism’ is not a race, and discrimination on the basis of alleged racism is not the same as discrimination on the basis of race.”
Her assertions about a supposed lack of investigation by her employer being somehow defamatory are similarly shown the door by the federal judge.
Plaintiff argues that Defendants’ announcement on May 26 that they had conducted an “internal review” of the Central Park incident was false because in reality, “no investigation was performed.” Plaintiff has failed to plausibly plead that the factual assertions contained in that statement were not “substantially true.” She does not allege that Defendants did not watch the viral video of the incident—indeed, her counsel appeared to concede at oral argument that they had—nor that Defendants did not have some kind of internal discussion about Plaintiff’s conduct in the video prior to firing her. Such acts suffice to meet a reasonable interpretation of “internal review.”
Further, Plaintiff’s assertion is belied by her own allegation that Franklin Templeton, at the very least, “communicat[ed] with Plaintiff about the May 25, 2020 incident in Central Park . . . on May 25, 2020.” And Defendants’ statement did not “ha[ve] the effect of conveying that Franklin Templeton had performed a thorough and fair investigation,” as she contends, because Defendants never used the words “thorough” or “fair.” Plaintiff may take issue with the sufficiency of Defendants’ investigation into the incident, but she has not plausibly alleged that no investigation was conducted at all.
Nothing there. And, as can probably be surmised from the court’s denial of Cooper’s discrimination claims, having your employer refer (somewhat obliquely) to you as a “racist” doesn’t come close to the legal definition of defamation. In fact, as the court points out, it’s quite the opposite.
To the extent that the first and second sentences of the statement can be read together as calling Plaintiff a racist, or characterizing her conduct on May 25, 2020 as racist, the statement is inactionable as protected opinion. It is well-established that an accusation of bigotry is a protected statement of opinion, rather than a defamatory statement of fact capable of being proven true or false.
It’s not that being called a racist does not result in harm to people’s finances, reputation, or social standing. It’s that this can’t be litigated as defamation because, like it or not, people’s subjective opinions about others are just that: opinions. And as such, they are very definitely protected speech.
Amy Cooper is, of course, free to appeal this decision. But there’s nothing in this decision that suggests she should. The areas of law covered here are extremely well settled. Cooper should probably have quit when she was still behind and saved herself some money by never filing this ridiculous lawsuit in the first place.