Siding with Meta Platforms, a federal judge has dismissed journalist John Stossel's lawsuit alleging that he was defamed by the company's fact-checks, which flagged one video he posted as “misleading” and a second as “partly false.”
In a ruling issued Tuesday, U.S. District Court Magistrate Virginia DeMarchi ruled that Stossel's allegations didn't meet the standard for defamation.
“The court concludes that Mr. Stossel cannot plausibly allege that the false statements are actionable as false statements of objective fact,” DeMarchi wrote.
She also ruled that Facebook was protected by California's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) law. That statue not only provides for dismissals of lawsuits that aim to suppress speech about public matters, but also allows defendants to recover their attorneys' fees.
The fact-checks “were made in a public forum and concern a matter of public interest,” DeMarchi wrote. “For this reason, the statements qualify as protected activity for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute.”
The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by Stossel last year, when he alleged that Facebook and its fact-checking partners Science Feedback, and Climate Feedback defamed him “with malice.”
His complaint centered on two videos -- one posted to Facebook on September 22, 2020, and the other on April 17, 2021.
In the September 2020 video, Stossel argues that politicians blamed the fires on climate change, but that “foolish policies” -- including decisions to put out small fires -- were the biggest cause of the devastating wildfires.
The video, which includes an interview with Michael Shellenberger -- a controversial environmentalist -- argues that “tens of thousands” of fires that should have naturally burned were extinguished, resulting in overgrowth.
Soon after the clip was posted, Facebook posted a fact-check overlay stating that the video was “missing context.”
People who clicked on that fact-check were taken to a page operated by Climate Feedback, which said the claim in Stossel's video was “misleading.”
That page summarized the claim in the video as follows: “Forest fires are caused by poor management. Not by climate change.”
Stossel counters in his complaint that he never made such a claim, and that the video “repeatedly confirms the opposite: that climate change is one of the causes of forest fires.”
DeMarchi said in her ruling that the fact-check reflected “the reviewer's subjective interpretation" of the video, and not the kind of verifiably false statement that can support a defamation claim.
“A reviewer’s assessment that Mr. Stossel was sympathetic to, or endorsed, the views expressed by Mr. Shellenberger ... and intended the video to communicate to his viewers that 'poor management' caused the fires, 'not climate change,' is the kind of assessment that is protected by the First Amendment as a statement of opinion,” the judge wrote.
Stossel alleged that the second video questioned claims of “environmental alarmists.”
Facebook's fact-checkers flagged that video as having “partly false information,” and added a “fact check” button that took people to the article, “Video promoted by John Stossel for Earth Day relies on incorrect and misleading claims about climate change.”
DeMarchi ruled that the article “is a classic example of viewpoint expression, or opinion, based on disclosed facts,” and therefore isn't defamatory.
She added that the fact-check posted by Facebook “reflects a subjective assessment of the contents of the video and is not capable of being proved true or false.”