An appellate court has ruled that Joy Reid, the new host of MSNBC’s 7 PM weeknight hour, should again face a defamation lawsuit over a woman’s claim that, in Reid’s social media posts, she falsely accused her of making racist remarks at a 2018 Simi Valley, CA city council meeting.
The plaintiff in the case, Roslyn La Liberte, contends that in one of Reid’s social media posts on Instagram, she defamed her by attributing racist remarks to her. Then in another post on Facebook and Instagram, La Liberte claims, Reid juxtaposed a photo from the council meeting with the 1957 image of a white woman in Little Rock screaming execrations at a Black child trying to go to school.
The appellate ruling overturns a district judge’s decision that the case should be dismissed.
The judges overturned a lower court ruling that La Liberte is a limited purpose public figure, something that would require a higher threshold to prove defamation.
“Accordingly, she was not required to allege that Reid acted with actual malice as to either post,” the three-judge panel wrote. “Moreover, the court erred by characterizing Reid’s second post as nonactionable opinion … That post could be interpreted as accusing La Liberte of engaging in specific racist conduct, which is a provable assertion of fact and therefore actionable.”
The appellate court also ruled that the case could not be dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, designed to prevent plaintiffs from stifling free speech via litigation. The judges found that the California law was “inapplicable” in federal court because “it increases a plaintiff’s burden to overcome pretrial dismissal.”
The appellate court agreed with another aspect of the district judge’s ruling — that Reid is not protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That provides immunity to sites for content posted by third parties. “To the contrary, she is the sole author of both allegedly defamatory posts,” the judges wrote.
MSNBC declined comment. Her attorney, John Reichman, said in a statement, “We are disappointed that the case was not dismissed, but that doesn’t change the fact that the case is completely without merit and we will vigorously contest it.”
In their opinion (read it here), the judges laid out the sequence of events.
In June, 2018, La Liberte spoke at the council meeting to speak out against a state law that limits cooperation between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Photographed with a 14-year-old Hispanic teenager near her, La Liberte was shown with her hand to her throat and making a gagging gesture.
One activist, Alan Vargas, tweeted the photo on June 28 with the caption, “You are going to be the first deported” [and] “dirty Mexican” [w]ere some of the things they yelled they yelled [sic] at this 14 year old boy. He was defending immigrants at a rally and was shouted down. Spread this far and wide this woman needs to be put on blast.
Reid retweeted Vargas’s tweet the next day.
La Liberte, though, takes issue with Reid’s further posts. On June 29, she posted the photo on Instagram with the caption, He showed up to a rally to defend immigrants . . . . She showed up too, in her MAGA hat, and screamed, “You are going to be the first deported” . . . “dirty Mexican!” He is 14 years old. She is an adult. Make the picture black and white and it could be the 1950s and the desegregation of a school. Hate is real, y’all. It hasn’t even really gone away.
The teenager gave an interview to Fox 11 in Los Angeles and told the station that La Liberte did not yell racial slurs and that the discussion was “civil.”
On July 1, Reid posted in Instagram and Facebook a post that juxtoposed the photo with one from 1957, during the desegregation of Little Rock High School.
The caption read, It was inevitable that this [juxtaposition] would be made. It’s also easy to look at old black and white photos and think: I can’t believe that person screaming at a child, with their face twisted in rage, is real. By [sic] every one of them were. History sometimes repeats. And it is full of rage. Hat tip to @joseiswriting. #regram #history #chooselove.
La Liberte hired a lawyer, who contacted Reid to take down the posts and apologize. She did, and said in a statement that “it appears that I got this wrong.”
La Liberte, though, pursued a defamation claim, accusing Reid of falsely claiming that she yelled racial slurs at the teenager.
The judges wrote that Reid, in her June 29 post, “went way beyond her earlier retweet of Vargas in ways that intensified and specified the vile conduct that she was attributing to La Liberte. She accordingly stands liable for any defamatory content.”
The judges rejected the notion that plaintiffs can only sue “the first defamer,” or the original source of the material. In that case, they noted that Vargas’ tweet did not specifically attribute remarks to La Liberte, but Reid did.
The judges wrote, “Reid is arguing that a plaintiff can sue only the first defamer. If that were so, a post by an obscure social media user with few followers, blogging in the recesses of the internet, would allow everyone else to pile on without consequence. No one’s reputation would be worth a thing.”
In rejecting the claim that La Liberte was a limited purpose public figure, the judges wrote that even though she did a television interview after Vargas’s tweet but before Reid’s posts, she “did not use the interview to inject herself to the forefront of the sanctuary-state controversy; she was pulled into a spotlight.” That sets the standard lower for La Liberte to pursue her claim, that Reid was merely negligent in her posts.
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