Glenn Beck’s audacious defense against Boston Marathon bombings defamation suit


Thousands gather for the “Restoring Honor” rally at Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall hosted by Fox talk show host Glenn Beck in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 2010. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Updated

On April 15 of last year, a thin kid with a bright smile named Abdulrahman Alharbi decided he would stop and watch the Boston Marathon for a few minutes. A Saudi Arabian studying English in Boston, he had heard of the famous marathon, but wanted to see it in the flesh, he later explained to one journalist. Ten minutes later, he witnessed what he first mistook for fireworks.

Then a second blast rocketed him into the middle of the road. “I realized that my legs were a little bit hurt because my jeans were [bloody],” he told the Islamic Monthly. “I was bleeding a little bit in my legs, but all my back was all [bloody] not because of my body but because of other peoples’ body.”

Alharbi, like numerous others in the chaotic few hours following the deadly bombings, was questioned by police. They asked for his Facebook password. He gave it to them. They asked to inspect his apartment. He allowed it. News of Alharbi reached the media, but by the next day, the cops had cleared the 20-year-old. “He has been checked out,” a law enforcement official told the Boston Globe. “He is not involved. He is just a victim.”

Broadcaster Glenn Beck, formerly of Fox News, was nonetheless suspicious of Alharbi. He thought the Obama administration was hiding Alharbi’s involvement. So three weeks later, Beck urged the government to release its information on Alharbi or else Beck would “expose” him.

“While the media continues to look at what the causes were [behind] these two guys, there are, at this hour, three people involved,” Beck said, alleging the U.S. government had “tagged” Alharbi as a “proven terrorist.” Over several broadcasts, Beck called Alharbi the “money man” behind the Boston bombings. “You know who the Saudi is?” Beck asked. “He’s the money man. He’s the guy who paid for it.”

What Beck said about Alharbi was untrue. Alharbi sued Beck for defamation in federal court in late March. And now, in a batch of little-noticed motions, Beck has lashed back, saying Alharbi is trying to “punish” and impede Beck’s First Amendment rights. Beck argues the bombings made Alharbi a “limited purpose” and “involuntary” public figure who must prove not just that Beck made false accusations, but that Beck did it with “actual malice.”

It’s no surprise that his lawyers would make that argument. Under that standard, whether or not Beck’s claims were false becomes almost irrelevant. In most cases involving public figures, malice is so hard to demonstrate that the matter rarely goes to trial.

First, however, Beck’s lawyers will have to convince a judge that Alharbi is indeed a public figure, albeit an involuntary one, someone who thrusts himself into the limelight.

What makes Alharbi a public figure, according to Beck? “By behaving suspiciously at the Marathon finishing line when the bombs detonated, thereby causing his detention and a background check by law enforcement,” states Beck’s motion to dismiss, Alharbi “embarked on a course of conduct that was reasonably likely to result in public attention and comment on his background, activities, and immigration status.” Plus, he gave interviews defending himself, said Beck’s legal team, led by Michael J. Grygiel.

Alharbi’s lawyers, led by Peter J. Haley, were incredulous at Beck’s argument. “An individual does not become a public figure due to the fact that he is investigated in connection with a crime, and then states publicly that he was not involved in the crime for which he was investigated.” To the extent Alharbi became known to the public, it was because of Beck’s “defamatory reporting.” They accused Beck of “bootstrapping,” creating his own defense by making a public figure out of Alharbi.

In any case, the student denies he behaved suspiciously — though it’s unclear what would qualify as such a designation. “I [was] really scared because I heard the first bomb, then the second bomb hurt me, then, I was really scared because there might be another one,” he told Islamic Monthly. “Then, I just was walking and the people were crying, ‘What happened, what happened?’ … No one arrested me, no one tackled me, no.”

He explained to the publication that some emergency personnel looked at him strangely because of “the color of my skin” and “because of the name of my country.”

“They were really scared of me,” he recalled. “I am injured, and I don’t have anything and they asked me, ‘What you have in your hand!’ I told them, ‘Nothing, it’s just a napkin!’ And then I throw it to them and they were like, ‘Ahh!’”

A court hearing is expected in the next several weeks, according to court filings.

Updated at 4:30 pm: The Post emailed Beck’s lawyers at 1:30 this morning EDT to see if they wanted to comment and did not hear back before this story was posted at 3:05 this morning. Since then, a spokesman has responded saying they do not wish to comment.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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