Facebook is urging a federal judge to throw out a libel lawsuit accusing it of wrongly attaching a label reading “Russia state-controlled media” to the pages “In the Now,” “Soapbox,” and “Waste-Ed.”
In papers filed late last week, Facebook argues that the label reflects its “opinion,” as opposed to a verifiable statement of fact. Libel claims can only be brought over incorrect factual statements.
“All of Maffick’s claims fail at the outset because the ... label is a nonactionable statement of opinion,” Facebook writes in a motion filed with U.S. District Court Judge James Donato in San Francisco. “Because the legal protection for statements of opinion flows from the First Amendment, this defect is fatal to all of Maffick’s claims,” the company adds.
The legal dispute dates to July, when Maffick sued Facebook for libel (and related claims) over the label. Maffick alleged it is owned by Anissa Naouai, who also owned a 49% interest in the now defunct “Maffick Media.”
Maffick said the majority owner of "Maffick Media" was Ruptly, a subsidiary of the Russian government-funded company RT. But Maffick alleged it isn't connected to Maffick Media or Ruptly.
Facebook said in June it was adding labels to state-controlled media outlets because it believes “people should know if the news they read is coming from a publication that may be under the influence of a government.”
The company is telling Donato it informs users it might place a label on an account based on a range of factors -- including the identity of the account's owners, the account's editorial guidelines, and its revenue sources.
“These contextual statements explain in a straightforward way that the label reflects Facebook’s own considered judgment based on multiple criteria,” Facebook writes. “As courts consistently have recognized, a collective judgment rendered by a speaker based on multiple criteria like Facebook’s [state-controlled media] label constitutes a nonactionable statement of opinion.”
Donato handed a preliminary victory in the case to Facebook last week, when he issued a written ruling denying Maffick's request to order Facebook to remove the “state-controlled media” label.
Donato wrote that Maffick could only obtain a temporary restraining order if it first showed the label was false.
“It has not crossed that threshold,” Donato wrote. “Even assuming that the “Russia state-controlled media” label is a statement of fact -- and not merely an opinion, as Facebook contends -- the record before the court establishes only that the question of falsity is disputed.”