Case Dismissed: Judge Throws Out Shiva Ayyadurai's Defamation Lawsuit Against Techdirt

from the the-first-amendment-means-something dept

As you likely know, for most of the past nine months, we've been dealing with a defamation lawsuit from Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email. This is a claim that we have disputed at great length and in great detail, showing how email existed long before Ayyadurai wrote his program. We pointed to the well documented public history of email, and how basically all of the components that Ayyadurai now claims credit for preceded his own work. We discussed how his arguments were, at best, misleading, such as arguing that the copyright on his program proved that he was the "inventor of email" -- since patents and copyrights are very different, and just because Microsoft has a copyright on "Windows" it does not mean it "invented" the concept of a windowed graphical user interface (because it did not). As I have said, a case like this is extremely draining -- especially on an emotional level -- and can create massive chilling effects on free speech.

A few hours ago, the judge ruled and we prevailed. The case has been dismissed and the judge rejected Ayyadurai's request to file an amended complaint. We are certainly pleased with the decision and his analysis, which notes over and over again that everything that we stated was clearly protected speech, and the defamation (and other claims) had no merit. This is, clearly, a big win for the First Amendment and free speech -- especially the right to call out and criticize a public figure such as Shiva Ayyadurai, who is now running for the US Senate in Massachusetts. We're further happy to see the judge affirm that CDA Section 230 protects us from being sued over comments made on the blog, which cannot be attributed to us under the law. We talk a lot about the importance of CDA 230, in part because it protects sites like our own from these kinds of lawsuits. This is just one more reason we're so concerned about the latest attempt in Congress to undermine CDA 230. While those supporting the bill may claim that it only targets sites like Backpage, such changes to CDA 230 could have a much bigger impact on smaller sites like our own.

We are disappointed, however, that the judge denied our separate motion to strike under California's anti-SLAPP law. For years, we've discussed the importance of strong anti-SLAPP laws that protect individuals and sites from going through costly legal battles. Good anti-SLAPP laws do two things: they stop lawsuits early and they make those who bring SLAPP suits -- that is, lawsuits clearly designed to silence protected speech -- pay the legal fees. The question in this case was whether or not California's anti-SLAPP law should apply to a case brought in Massachusetts. While other courts have said that the state of the speaker should determine which anti-SLAPP laws are applied (even in other states' courts), it was an issue that had not yet been ruled upon in the First Circuit where this case was heard. While we're happy with the overall dismissal and the strong language used to support our free speech rights, we're nevertheless disappointed that the judge chose not to apply California's anti-SLAPP law here.

However, that just reinforces the argument we've been making for years: we need stronger anti-SLAPP laws in many states (including Massachusetts) and, even more importantly, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law to protect against frivolous lawsuits designed to silence protected speech. The results of this case have only strengthened our resolve to do everything possible to continue to fight hard for protecting freedom of expression and to push for stronger anti-SLAPP laws that make free speech possible, and not burdensome and expensive.

You have not heard the last from us on the issue of the First Amendment, free speech and anti-SLAPP laws -- or how some try to use the court system to silence and bully critics. Step one of this is our new Free Speech edition, which we announced just a few weeks ago, where we are focusing more of our reporting efforts on issues related to free speech and anti-SLAPP. We intend to do a lot more as well. For years, we've talked about these issues from the position of an observer, and now we can talk about them from the perspective of someone who has gone through this process as well.

Of course, if you have to face something like this, it helps to have great lawyers--and we're immensely grateful for the incredible hard-work of Rob Bertsche, Jeff Pyle and Thomas Sutcliffe along with the rest of the team at their firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

Finally, I can't even begin to thank everyone who has supported us over the past nine months -- whether by kind words (you don't know how much that helped!) or through our survival fund at ISupportJournalism.com or by becoming a Techdirt Insider. We just passed Techdirt's 20th anniversary and while it's one thing to think that people like and support you, it's another thing altogether to see how people come out to support you when it matters most. And we were overwhelmed by the support we received over the past nine months, and the kind words and help that many, many people offered. It was beyond heartening, and, once again, it reinforces our resolve to continue to speak up for free speech and to do what we can to protect others' ability to speak out as well.


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  1. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Sep 2017 @ 4:59pm

    Pages 19-21 seem to contain, in my not-a-lawyer opinion, the most important part of the judge's reasoning:

    "The articles at issue provide all of the relevant fact on which defendants rely in reaching the conclusion that plaintiff's claim is false."

    [...]

    "Not every article at issue fully explains the factual basis for the conclusion that plaintiff's claim is false. However, the articles that do not provide a full explanation refer to, and often provide hyperlinks to, the articles that do. Furthermore, as plaintiff has recognized, the articles should be viewed together and are each relevant context for the others."

    [...]

    "By providing the full factual basis for his opinion, the articles cannot reasonably be interpreted to suggest that the author had information about plaintiff's claim that was not accessible to others."

    [...]

    "Furthermore, and significantly, it appears that the core underlying facts are not disputed."

    [...]

    "In addition, plaintiff has not challenged the accuracy of the factual statements relied upon in reaching the conclusion that his claim is false.

    [...]

    "Thus, while the complaint challenges the conclusions drawn from the available facts, it does not challenge the underlying facts themselves."

    [...]

    "In short, the articles disclose the non-defamatory facts on which they rely; make clear that the conclusions drawn from those facts are simply an interpretation of them; and do not rely on other, undisclosed and potentially defamatory facts that are not available to others."

    [...]

    "Furthermore, by providing hyperlinks to the relevant information, the articles enable readers to review the underlying information for themselves and reach their own conclusions. See Riley, 292 F.3d at 289. Accordingly, the statements are not actionable. [bold added]

    [end of quotations]

    That part, I think, establishes that nothing published on Techdirt was defamatory in the first place.

    And even if Ayyadurai were to try to prop up his proposed appeal by shoveling in lies about the factual sources Mike's articles were based on, it would do nothing to change the situation. This ruling clearly reiterates that merely providing one's conclusions based off of disclosed facts regardless of how much hyperbolic language is used to do so, is not defamation. Ayyadurai would have to attempt to argue that not only are a few decades of factual record from multiple independent and unbiased sources false, but he would also have to prove that Mike knew his sources were false when he wrote the articles and decided to use them anyway. While Ayyadurai may believe any history of email he hasn't wormed his way into is false, a reasonable and knowledgeable person would not, and I don't see one scintilla of evidence that Mike was thinking "well these guys are total liars but I'll quote them in my articles because fuck Shiva." And no, Shiva, your hallucinations about Mike's motivations don't count as evidence.

    On a final note, the judge's statement that "a settlement is not a direct reflection of the merits of a claim" is something that bears repeating often, not just in this case, or even just for defamation cases, but also in copyright/patent/porn trolling cases as well.


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