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Price v. Stossel

Ninth Circuit reverses district court’s decision granting defendant television network’s anti-SLAPP motion in a defamation action brought by a television evangelist, finding that the defendants made a false statement by broadcasting a video clip of the plaintiff’s sermon in a misleading context.

Plaintiff Dr. Frederick Price is a widely known minister and television evangelist. He founded the Crenshaw Christian Center / Ever Increasing Faith Ministry in 1973 and now leads a congregation of 22,000. Price has substantial wealth and, among other things, preaches about God’s financial generosity to his followers.

In March 2007, defendant ABC broadcast an episode of its news program 20/20 entitled “Enough,” which was hosted by defendant John Stossel. “Enough” focused on individuals who had taken personal, moral stances on a variety of topics and included a segment on “wealthy preachers.” The “wealthy preachers” segment identified several ministers who were not forthcoming about their wealth. The program begins by stating “[t]hey preach the gospel of giving to God,” then asks “[b]ut how much of what you give do they keep for themselves?” During the “wealthy preachers” segment, a member of Price’s congregation stated that she believed that her “money is being put to excellent use, without one question.” Stossel then said “[a]nd yet her pastor, Fred Price, boasts that . . . ,” and the program cuts to a video clip of Price stating “I live in a 25-room mansion. I have my own $6 million yacht. I have my own private jet, and I have my own helicopter, and I have seven luxury automobiles.” Price demanded a retraction from ABC because the video clip suggested that Price was speaking about his own wealth. In fact, Price was preaching a sermon about a hypothetical wealthy person who was spiritually unfulfilled. ABC later broadcast a retraction.

Price sued ABC, Stossel, and others involved in the production of “Enough” for defamation. However, the federal district court in California granted the defendants’ motion to strike Price’s defamation claim under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which provides that a cause of action against any person arising out of any act in furtherance of the person’s right of free speech in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the plaintiff can establish that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim. For tactical reasons relating to an effort to limit discovery, defendants’ motion was limited to the narrow issue of “falsity.” The district court compared the assets Price mentions in the clip with Price’s actual assets and found that the clip more or less accurately described Price’s wealth, and thus it was immaterial that the clip portrayed Price as talking about himself when he was not. The district court also dismissed Price’s contention that the clip falsely conveyed to the viewer the impression that Price was boasting about his wealth, pointing to other public statements in which Price talked about his own prosperity. Because the district court found that the clip was “substantially true,” Price failed to establish a likelihood that he would succeed on his defamation claim. The district court accordingly struck Price’s defamation claim, and Price appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding that the district court had misapplied precedent regarding defamatory misquotations by journalists, as set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496 (1991). The Ninth Circuit distinguished between a defamatory false statement and a defamatory misquotation. A defendant accused of making a defamatory statement may succeed on an anti-SLAPP motion if the statement is substantially true. However, the Masson court explained that when a defendant quotes the plaintiff, the defendant is representing to the reader or listener what the plaintiff actually said, rather than paraphrasing or conveying the statement through an interpretive lens. It also explained that when quotations are used, loyalty to the speaker’s intended meaning is more important than a precise reproduction of the words spoken, and that extensive revisions to a quoted statement may result in no change to the overall meaning, while an exact quotation out of context may distort meaning.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that, even if the defendants’ clip accurately described Price’s wealth, under Masson the proper comparison is the meaning of the quotation as published and the meaning of the words as uttered. Because Price never made any representations about his own wealth when he delivered the sermon that was excerpted, the district court erred as a matter of law in dismissing the defamation claim on grounds of lack of falsity.

However, the Ninth Circuit emphasized that it was only addressing the narrow issue of “falsity”, and that it expressed no opinion as to whether Price would be able to establish the other elements of his defamation claim, including damages and intent. The Ninth Circuit also determined that the district court properly dismissed plaintiff’s claims of “implied defamation,” which were based on plaintiff’s claims that the report implied (1) that he engaged in criminal and/or dishonest conduct; and (2) that he lacked transparency in his Church dealings.

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