SCOTUS Rejects Church's Request To Reconsider Libel Standard

The Supreme Court Monday rejected a church's request to reconsider the landmark libel decision New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 case establishing that public officials must prove “actual malice” in order to prevail on libel claims.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, reiterating his opinion that the 1964 ruling, and later cases elaborating on it, "were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law."

No other judges joined Thomas's dissent, but Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has previously called for the court to revisit the Sullivan decision.

The actual malice standard set out by the Supreme Court in its Sullivan ruling requires public officials who sue for defamation to prove that the speakers -- newspapers, magazines, bloggers or anyone else -- knew their statements were false, or acted with reckless disregard for the statements' falsity. That standard was later extended to all public figures suing for libel.

The court's move puts an end to a battle dating to 2017, when Coral Ridge Ministries Media sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for defamation, for calling the church as a "hate group" due to its position on homosexuality. Coral Ridge also sued Amazon, which allegedly refused to allow donations to the church through the "Amazon Smile" program, due to the Southern Poverty Law Center's designation of the church as a hate group. (Coral Ridge says it "opposes homosexuality," but "has nothing but love for people who engage in homosexual conduct," according to court documents.)

U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson in the Middle District of Alabama dismissed Coral Ridge's lawsuit on several grounds, including that there is no one definition of the phrase "hate group."

Therefore, Thompson wrote, the statement that Coral Ridge was a "hate group" was not provably false, and couldn't serve as the basis of a defamation lawsuit. Thompson also said in his ruling that Coral Ridge was a public figure that had to prove actual malice to prevail on a defamation claim.

Coral Ridge appealed that ruling to the 11th Circuit, which upheld Thompson's decision.

After the 11th Circuit ruled against Coral Ridge, the church asked the Supreme Court to take up the dispute and reconsider the actual malice standard.

“This Court’s 'actual-malice' standard, invented for a particular time and a particular purpose, has become obsolete and does not serve any of the interests it was designed to protect by limiting private individuals from bringing defamation claims against other private companies or individuals,” the church wrote in a petition filed in November.

The church added that the standard has given media companies “virtual immunity” from libel lawsuits.

The Southern Poverty Law Center urged the Supreme Court to reject Coral Ridge's request for several reasons, including that the underlying statement -- that the church is a hate group -- “is not provable as false and therefore not actionable.”

The organization also challenged the idea that public figures can't win libel cases, noting that the celebrity Cardi B won a defamation lawsuit earlier this year.

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