Scalia and Thomas and Kagan, oh my!

An unusual lineup for the concurring opinion in today’s Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper. The general issue is libel law as filtered through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act:

In 2001, Congress created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to assess and manage threats against air travel. Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), 49 U. S. C. §44901 et seq. To ensure that the TSA would be informed of potential threats, Congress gave airlines and their employees immunity against civil liability for reporting suspicious behavior. §44941(a). But this immunity does not attach to “any disclosure made with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading” or “any disclosure made with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.” §44941(b). [Volokh adds: This is based on the New York Times v. Sullivan libel standard that First Amendment law prescribes for lawsuits by public figures or public officials, but it applies the standard even to lawsuits brought by non-public-figure airline employees.]

The question before us is whether ATSA immunity may be denied under §44941(b) without a determination that a disclosure was materially false. We hold that it may not. Because the state courts made no such determination, and because any falsehood in the disclosure here would not have affected a reasonable security officer’s assessment of the supposed threat, we reverse the judgment of the Colorado Supreme Court.

On that general issue, all the justices agree, but Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kagan disagreed on how (and whether) to apply the standard in this case. The majority concluded that (1) the court should itself apply the standard, and that (2) the statements were not materially false. The concurring justices concluded that the matter should be left to the lower courts to decide on remand, and that the statements might indeed have been materially false. In any event, an interesting opinion, worth reading if you are interested in libel law — since it will likely be cited as precedent in ordinary libel cases — but especially interesting given the likely unexpected lineup among the concurring justices.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Volokh is the author of the textbooks The First Amendment and Related Statutes (4th ed. 2011), The Religion Clauses and Related Statutes (2005), and Academic Legal Writing (4th ed. 2010), as well as over 70 law review articles. Volokh is also an Academic Affiliate for the Mayer Brown LLP law firm.
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