The libel case stems from a contentious meeting two years ago in Simi Valley, Calif., regarding immigration — one that exploded with vitriol and insults. Reid’s involvement relates not to anything she said on air, but rather on social media. The plaintiff in the case is Roslyn La Liberte, a California resident who is “passionate about this country’s immigration policies,” according to her complaint in the case. Clad in a MAGA hat, La Liberte attended the June 25 meeting to register her opposition to a California “sanctuary” law that bars local law enforcement from “cooperating with aggressive federal action to identify and deport undocumented immigrants.”
A few days after the meeting, as the news from heated proceedings bubbled up on Twitter, Reid retweeted to her then-1.24 million followers a posting that described some of the proceedings:
“Blast” is precisely what Reid proceeded to do. Here’s an Instagram post:
And another, which is a republication of a posting by immigration activist/journalist Jose Antonio Vargas:
The timeline is critical to La Liberte’s complaint. On June 29, Reid shared a tweet from Alan Vargas, a young California-based activist and organizer, and published her own Instagram post. Also on that day, Fox 11 Los Angeles published a story alleging that the picture at the center of the activity — taken by the Ventura County Star — had been misinterpreted. Whereas some came away with the impression that La Liberte was haranguing Joseph Luevanos, a 14-year-old Hispanic boy, he told Fox 11 that it wasn’t so. “During a recess in the meeting the teenager says he started a conversation with the woman to try and understand her feelings, ‘but, I felt like she was still trying to keep it civil which I appreciate,’” reads the story, quoting Luevanos.
On the 29th and the 30th, La Liberte’s son emailed Reid with links to stories on the controversy and “further advised Reid that her accusations were false and were causing others to harass La Liberte and her family,” according to the complaint. (Reid says she didn’t see those emails.)
On July 1, Reid posted her second Instagram message about the situation, which actually republished a post that was already circulating on social media. She also placed it on Facebook.
The next day, a lawyer for La Liberte sent a retraction demand to Reid, who took down the posts and tapped out this message: “It appears I got this wrong. My apologies to Mrs. La Liberte and Joseph.”
In a November 2018 amended complaint, La Liberte’s counsel, Lin Wood, sought “substantial compensatory damages” and ascribed motive to the host’s work: “Reid’s actions were also born out of her personal animus and dislike of President Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and supporters of each, including those wearing MAGA hats.”
In a motion to dismiss filed a month later, Reid attorney John Reichman followed the digital trail that arose from the meeting. At least eight individuals, reads the motion, had posted comments to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram “alleging that La Liberte made the racial slurs.” More than 150 others, says the motion, “accused La Liberte of being racist.” Social media focus on the clash in Simi Valley, moreover, was proceeding “independent” of Reid’s participation, Reichman argues in the motion. And substantial questions remain about just what La Liberte was “yelling” at the event, he writes.
There are sound legal reasons to argue that Reid wasn’t all alone in pointing the finger at La Liberte on social media. As a journalistic consideration, however, it’s a loser: Just because some other people posted stuff on social media isn’t an excuse or justification for an MSNBC host to follow suit.
Federal judge Dora L. Irizarry last September tossed La Liberte’s complaint, a ruling that featured a finding that La Liberte was a “limited-purpose public figure.” That’s an important determination, because public figures in defamation suits have a mighty standard of proof to surmount: They must show that the offending party acted with so-called “actual malice,” meaning that they acted with knowledge of the falsity of their statements or with reckless disregard of the truth. Plaintiffs, accordingly, need a whole locker of legal smoking guns to prevail in such cases.
As for La Liberte’s status, Irizarry concluded that she met these prongs of the limited-purpose public figure test (per Irizarry’s ruling):
(1) there must be a public controversy, which means the issue was debated publicly and had foreseeable and substantial ramifications for nonparticipants; (2) the plaintiff must have undertaken some voluntary act through which she sought to influence resolution of the public issue, and, in this regard, it is enough that the plaintiff seeks to thrust herself into the public eye; and (3) the alleged defamation must be germane to the plaintiff’s participation in the controversy.
To gird her argument that La Liberte “thrust” herself into this controversy, Irizarry cited the fact that she had “appeared in a photograph in the Washington Post” for a story about the California immigration debate. Also: La Liberte had spoken up at “multiple city council meetings around the State of California.” (The judge found that La Liberte’s allegations about Reid’s July 1 posts on Instagram and Facebook “satisfy” the actual malice standard, but that those posts “express nonactionable statements of opinion.”)
The appeals court was having none of Irizarry’s logic on public figures. It argued that the judge failed to take into account a critical requirement for limited-purpose public figures — that they have “regular and continuing access to the media.” Such access is a central justification for the actual malice standard: Public figures can issue press releases, make speeches or type out widely shared tweets to battle false or unfair criticism. “La Liberte plainly lacked such media access,” reads the appellate ruling, which was written by Judge Dennis Jacobs. “The earlier photograph, which showed her conversing, was in a Washington Post photo spread of attendees at … [a] protest. The article did not name La Liberte, let alone mention her views. … Such incidental and anonymous treatment hardly bespeaks ‘regular and continuing access to the media.’”
The point about speaking out at meetings isn’t persuasive either, noted the ruling. “Nor does speech, even a lot of it, make a citizen (or noncitizen) fair game for attack. Imposition of the actual malice requirement on people who speak out at government meetings would chill public participation in politics and community dialogue,” it reads.
The appellate court sent the case back to the district court, complete with its finding that La Liberte cannot be considered a limited-purpose public figure. Absent that threshold, La Liberte needs to prove only that Reid acted negligently. “We take issue with respect to many of the plaintiff’s allegations,” says Reichman. “While we are disappointed that the case was not dismissed, that doesn’t change the fact that the case is completely without merit and we will vigorously contest it.”
MSNBC declined to comment.
The case against Reid contains multitudes. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and more than 20 prominent news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in February asking that the appeals court uphold Izibarry’s ruling that under California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation), Reid could claim compensation for attorney’s fees. The appeals court said no.
And Reid’s attorney invoked the famous Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in an effort to dispose of the complaint against her. That provision is regarded as a linchpin of free online expression, as it immunizes newspapers, social media providers and other sites from liability for the often actionable comments posted by users. Reid qualifies for protection under Section 230, argued her motion to dismiss, because she based her posts on information furnished by “another information content provider,” as the statute specifies.
Nonsense, said the appeals court: In her Facebook and Instagram posts, says the ruling, Reid “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.”
Again: Reid’s lawyer is free to toss around possible defenses for her tweets. But a journalist citing a Section 230 defense for her tweets is not in any way journalistic.
The contours of the case argue for its inclusion in social media training at news outlets. Whatever La Liberte said and whatever impact Reid’s postings had on her life, it’s clear that the MSNBC star did little research before hopping on the case. Her first Instagram post, after all, said that Luevanos had come to a “rally.” This was no rally and whatever it was, Reid didn’t attend.
Bad idea, accordingly, to tweet with such certainty about the events depicted in a photograph.
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