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Stossel v. Meta Platforms, Inc.

District court dismisses reporter John Stossel’s complaint for defamation against Facebook owner Meta and third-party fact-checking organization after his videos were fact-checked and flagged as “Missing Context” and “Partly False” on Facebook, holding that fact-checking labels and assessments are subjective and do not constitute actionable statements of objective fact.

The district court dismissed with prejudice news reporter John Stossel’s claim for defamation against Facebook owner Meta Platforms, Inc., and Science Feedback, a French nonprofit organization that runs a fact-checking website called Climate Feedback. Stossel filed the lawsuit after two videos he published on Facebook reporting on climate change were fact-checked and labeled as “Missing Context” and “Partly False.” Claiming that these actions amounted to defamation, Stossel alleged that he was damaged by the loss of advertising revenue caused by the reduced viewership of the videos after they had been flagged, and that his professional reputation had been damaged by labeling of his videos. Meta and Science Feedback moved to dismiss Stossel’s complaint for failure to state a claim and also moved to strike the complaint pursuant to California’s anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (anti-SLAPP) statute.

The first of Stossel’s videos at issue is titled “Government Fueled Fires,” discussing the devastating California wildfires of 2020. In this video, according to the complaint, Stossel explores a scientific hypothesis that while climate change contributed to the California wildfires, it was not the primary cause, with some interviewees in the video claiming that the fires were primarily caused by poor forest management. Shortly after the video was published on Facebook, it was labeled as Missing Context by Facebook’s fact-checking program, which works with independent third-party fact-checking organizations to “fight [] the spread of misinformation on Facebook.” Viewers of the flagged video had the option of clicking a link to “See Why” the video had been labeled as Missing Context, which opened a new text box indicating that “[i]ndependent fact-checkers say this information is missing context and could mislead people.” Also included in that text box was a link to an article on the Climate Feedback website, which assessed the claim that “[f]orest fires are caused by poor management[,] [n]ot by climate change,” finding the claim to be misleading. Stossel alleged that these actions “stated by implication” and falsely attributed to him such claim, which he did not make in the fire video.

The second video is titled “Are We Doomed?” and, according to Stossel, “question[s] claims made by those [whom] Stossel refers to as ‘environmental alarmists.’” The video contained footage of a panel discussion on climate change that “acknowledged rising sea levels and discussed whether humans can adapt to the problems they pose; discussed data that undermine the claim that hurricanes are getting stronger; and discussed how carbon dioxide can be simultaneously a greenhouse gas and a beneficial fuel for crops.” According to Stossel, the “climate alarmists” refused to attend the panel debate. After the video was published to Facebook, it was labeled Partly False by Facebook’s fact-checking program, and a link directed viewers to an article on the Climate Feedback website titled “Video promoted by John Stossel for Earth Day relies on incorrect and misleading claims about climate change.” Stossel claimed that these actions were defamatory in that defendants’ statements that the video contained factual inaccuracies and was partly false themselves were false.

The district court first analyzed defendants’ motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. A claim for defamation “must allege (1) a publication that is (2) false, (3) defamatory, (4) unprivileged, and (5) has a natural tendency to injure or causes special damage.” Furthermore, because Stossel is a public figure, he was required to allege that defendants acted with “actual malice.” The court focused its inquiry on whether defendants’ allegedly defamatory statements were actionable as statements of fact. As the district court explained, “The First Amendment protects statements of subjective opinion, viewpoint, and interpretation, but not false statements or implied assertions of objective fact.” 

Regarding the fire video, Stossel argued that by labeling his video Missing Context and linking to Climate Feedback’s article debunking the claim that “forest fires are caused by poor management[,] [n]ot by climate change,” defendants had falsely attributed such claim to him. The court did not agree that these acts amounted to defamation, however, concluding that Facebook’s fact-checking program is a subjective assessment of the facts being checked and thus does not constitute an actionable statement of objective fact. Additionally, the district court found that the text of the article linked to the fire video did not imply that Stossel ever made such claim; rather, it implied that the claim was made in the video. Also, because the article discussed in detail why it had concluded that the claim that poor forest management caused wildfires and not climate change was Missing Context, the court found this to support the subjective nature of the assessment. Thus, because the court believed the complained-of acts did not constitute actionable false statements of fact, the court granted defendants’ motions to dismiss as to the statements relating to the fire video.

As to the alarmism video, Stossel claimed that defendants defamed him by attaching a Partly False label to the video and describing in the linked text that the video contained “factual inaccuracies.” As with the fire video, the district court held that the application of the Partly False label was a subjective assessment protected by the First Amendment and not actionable for defamation. The court further held that Stossel had only made conclusory allegations as to the false statements made by defendants and had not identified any specific false statements. Also, the court again determined that the fact-checking article linked to the alarmism video was a statement of opinion based on disclosed facts, none of which Stossel alleged to be false. Accordingly, the district court held that Stossel had not stated a claim for defamation and granted defendants’ motions to dismiss as to the statements relating to the alarmism video.

Defendants also moved to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. For the statute to apply, a defendant must first show that the plaintiff’s claim arises from the defendant’s protected activity concerning matters of public interest and then that the plaintiff’s claim is unlikely to succeed on the merits. The district court noted that California’s anti-SLAPP statute recognizes “any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest” as a category of protected speech. The parties did not dispute that defendants’ speech on a public website regarding environmental issues constituted protected activity under the anti-SLAPP statute. And based on the court’s determination on the motions to dismiss that the complained-of statements were not actionable statements of objective fact, the court concluded that Stossel could not show a probability of success on the merits of his claim. Therefore, the court granted defendants’ motions to strike.

The district court dismissed Stossel’s complaint without leave to amend, finding that any such amendment would be futile because no amendment could change the fact that the challenged statements are not actionable statements of objective fact.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Kyle Petersen