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SCOTUS

Supreme Court Declines to Reconsider Actual Malice Standard in NRB Member Lawsuit

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari in Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. v. Southern Poverty Law Center, a case involving NRB member D. James Kennedy Ministries (also known as Coral Ridge Ministries Media, as named in court filings).

This case, concerning the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) false and injurious designation of D. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM) as a “hate group” in 2017, raised the issue of whether the Supreme Court should “reconsider New York Times v. Sullivan’s ‘actual-malice’ standard or, at a minimum, cabin Sullivan’s ‘actual malice’ standard to speech concerning public officials and be eliminated altogether for private public figures,” SCOTUSblog writes.

“We view this as a missed opportunity to revisit the Times v. Sullivan actual malice standard,” said NRB CEO Troy A. Miller. “We look forward to the day the Supreme Court reexamines that precedent and reconsiders the need for recourse against false, outrageous, and damaging allegations like those of the corrupt SPLC.”

Justice Clarence Thomas solely dissented from the denial, writing in part,

I would grant certiorari in this case to revisit the “actual malice” standard. This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups “to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.” SPLC’s “hate group” designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. It placed Coral Ridge on an interactive, online “Hate Map” and caused Coral Ridge concrete financial injury by excluding it from the AmazonSmile donation program. Nonetheless, unable to satisfy the “almost impossible” actual-malice standard this Court has imposed, Coral Ridge could not hold SPLC to account for what it maintains is a blatant falsehood.

Because the Court should not “insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits” unless “the First Amendment requires” us to do so, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

In December 2021, an amicus curiae brief was filed on NRB’s behalf petitioning the Supreme Court to grant the writ of certiorari.

Background

In 2017, the SPLC labeled D. James Kennedy Ministries as a “hate group” in response to its teaching of traditional Christian beliefs. Amazon thereafter denied DJKM continued participation in the AmazonSmile charitable giving program. That same year, D. James Kennedy Ministries filed a lawsuit against Amazon, Guidestar, and the SPLC for defamation and religious discrimination.

“SPLC acted knowingly, intentionally, and with actual malice in publishing the Hate Map that included the ministry and in publishing the SPLC Transmissions to Guidestar that included the ministry,” D. James Kennedy Ministries’ suit said. “SPLC’s conduct in making these publications was beyond the reckless disregard for the truth standard required by Alabama law for punitive damages.”

The suit was dismissed in September 2019 by U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson, who held that the SPLC’s labeling of DJKM as a “hate group,” regardless of accuracy, was protected under the First Amendment. Her ruling was consistent with the 2018 recommendation of federal Magistrate Judge David A. Baker to dismiss the case, holding that the ministry had not met the “actual malice” standard for defamation that the Supreme Court established in New York Times v.Sullivan.

The brief filed by NRB in December 2021 (read full brief here) addresses the disastrous practical effects of Sullivan, notes the lack of policy support for the “actual malice” standard, and presents the case as an excellent vehicle for reconsidering Sullivan.

Earlier in 2021, Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Neil Gorsuch called on the court to revisit that precedent in a dissent from the denial of certiorari in Shkelzen Berisha v. Guy Lawson.

“This Court’s pronouncement that the First Amendment requires public figures to establish actual malice bears ‘no relation to the text, history, or structure of the Constitution,’” Gorsuch wrote.

NRB continues to step forward as an amicus curiae in cases of importance to our members.

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