Newsweek’s 12(b)(6) failed in defamation case – Boone v. Newsweek

I have never understood the point of news publications including images in their articles/publications that aren’t actually story or incident related. This is especially true when they are reporting critically about specific individuals. I get it, images help with clicks and drawing attention but that’s what stock photos or massively cropped photos are for. Nevertheless, according to the statements in the Court’s opinion, Newsweek made a decision to do just that which resulted in, without surprise, a defamation and false light case against them.

The below information is based upon the information provided in the court opinion. I have no independent knowledge about the facts of this case.

Plaintiff: James Boone

Defendant: Newsweek, LLC, et al. (related entities)

HIGH LEVEL OVERVIEW

Newsweek, an online news organization, published a story about a a police officer who was accused of racially profiling a man in a restaurant. Rather than posting an image of the officer that was being accused of the profiling, Newsweek chose to embed a photo of a police officer, who was apparently identifiable by partial face, nametag and badge number, that had nothing to do with the headline and story. Allegedly, as a consequence, Boone and his family received texts, emails and messages via social media inquiring about the article under the impression that he was involved resulting in Boone having to seek police protection. Boone’s lawyer wrote to Newsweek alerting them to the issue and asked that “appropriate measures [be taken] to mitigate the harm.” For whatever reason, Newsweek apparently didn’t respond. Consequently, Boone filed a lawsuit against Newsweek for defamation and false light in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Newsweek then filed a motion to dismiss, under Fed.R.Civ.P., Rule 12(b)(6) [failure to state a claim] arguing that Boone failed to plead enough facts to support a reasonable inference that Newsweek acted with “actual malice.”

A LITTLE INTO THE LEGAL WEEDS

In this particular instance, Boone is considered a public-figure. “To prevail on a defamation case, the First Amendment requires that public-figure plaintiffs plead-and later, prove, that the defendant acted with ‘actual malice.'” Contrary to most lay persons belief, and as the court explains “‘[a]ctual malice’ is a term of art that does not connotate ill will or improper motivation” rather it means that the “publisher acted ‘with knowledge that [the allegedly defamatory statement] was a false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” When breaking it down further, the term “reckless disregard” means “that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement or that the defendant had a subjective awareness of probable falsity.”

The “actual malice” standard is a pretty high bar to recovery. It can be even higher when you’re considering, as here, not a direct false statement but when there is alleged defamation by implication. In this instance “[Boone] has to show that [Newsweek] “either intended to communicate the defamatory meaning or knew of the defamatory meaning and was reckless in regard to it.” This inquiry is subjective in nature which requires that “some evidence showing, directly or circumstantially, that the defendants themselves understood the potential defamatory meaning of their statement.” Obviously, false implications are capable of being defamatory.

Here Boone would need to prove that “Newsweek knew the implication that Boone was involved in [the subject incident] or was reckless about that falsity” and that “Newsweek either intended to convey the false impression that Boone was involved in [the subject incident], or knew that publishing the photograph would likely convey the false impression that Boone was involved in [the subject incident] but recklessly published it anyway.” While the Court discusses some other things, the Court here took issue with the fact that Boone’s badge number and name tag were visible in the photograph. The Court stated:

“The fact that the photograph depicted Boone’s nametag and badge number therefore gives rise to a reasonable inference that¬†Newsweek¬†(1) knew that Boone was not involved in the [subject] incident or acted in reckless disregard of that fact, and (2) knew that publishing the photograph would likely convey the false impression that Boone was involved in the [subject] incident but recklessly published it anyway.”

Because there was a “reasonable inference that Newsweek acted with actual malice” the Court denied the motion to dismiss the defamation claim. With respect to the false light claim, which also requires the finding of actual malice, the Court similarly denied the motion to dismiss.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Defamation litigation can be part of the “cost of doing business” when you are in the news publication business. That said, this was, in my opinion, easily avoidable. I’m not sure if there was a failure to have full legal review done before the publication was published, or if someone didn’t take the demand letter from Boone’s attorney seriously … but Newsweek, with the limited information we’re presented with anyway, appears to have had two opportunities to avoid this litigation and they didn’t take advantage of either. The first would have been to train reporting and editing staff to not use unrelated images, especially of identifiable people, in news reporting efforts. This should be a no-brainer, but given how often I see that happen in news publications, I’m not surprised. The second would have been to acknowledge the mistake and simply change out the picture to something more appropriate … you know, like an image of the actual officer being accused in the article … when they received notice that there was an issue. Doubling down on something like this seems like an unnecessary risk … that has now resulted in costly litigation. Maybe Newsweek has a huge litigation budget … but even then, you’d think that they’d want to use it a little more wisely.

Citation: Boone v. Newsweek, LLC, Case No. 22-1601, E.D. Pa, Feb. 27, 2023)

DISCLAIMER: This is for general information purposes only. This should not be relied upon as formal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that you are concerned with, you should seek out an attorney in your jurisdiction who may be able to advise you of your rights and options.

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