In the second half of 2019, several notable defamation lawsuits were filed, advanced, or resolved. On November 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied a petition by The New York Times for a rehearing in a defamation lawsuit brought by former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. On Oct. 28, 2019, a federal judge partially reinstated a Covington Catholic High School student’s defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post, finding that three contested statements should be subjected to discovery. In October and August, former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio lost two defamation lawsuits filed against several media outlets, including The New York Times and CNN, among others. On Aug. 21, 2019, a former classmate of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sued the Huffington Post and one if its former reporters for defamation after the news outlet published a story alleging that the classmate sold drugs that killed a member of the Kennedy family. Finally, on Aug. 2, 2019, a Chinese billionaire sued multiple American news organizations for defamation, reaching a settlement in one of the lawsuits.
Second Circuit Denies Rehearing in Palin Defamation Lawsuit Against The New York Times
On Nov. 7, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied an August 20 petition by The New York Times for a panel hearing or rehearing en banc in a defamation lawsuit brought by former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Previously, on Aug. 6, 2019, the Second Circuit reinstated the complaint brought by Palin in 2017, holding that she had plausibly stated a defamation claim and that the district court had erred by using facts that were outside the pleadings of Palin’s complaint.
On June 14, 2017, The New York Times published an editorial connecting a map distributed by Palin’s political action committee (SarahPAC) in 2010 with the 2011 mass shooting by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson, Ariz. that killed six people and severely wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The editorial said that the map “put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.” The editorial was prompted by the June 14, 2017 mass shooting in which left-wing activist James Hodgkinson opened fire on a baseball practice for Republican members of Congress in Alexandria, Va.
The Times issued a correction within a day, clarifying that there was no established link between Palin and the 2011 shooting. Additionally, the revised editorial clarified that Palin’s map had never put the faces of Gifford and the other democrats under cross hairs, but instead that the map “showed the targeted electoral districts of Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs” (emphasis added).
On Aug. 29, 2017, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Palin’s lawsuit, finding that she had failed to show that the Times published inaccurate statements maliciously. Palin v. The New York Times Company, 264 F.Supp.3d 527 (S.D.N.Y. 2017). Rakoff held that because Palin was a public figure, she had the burden of establishing that the Times acted with “actual malice,” a standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan that public officials have to show that news organizations knowingly published false information or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. 376 U.S. 254 (1964). (For more information on the background of the case and Rakoff’s ruling, see District Court Judge Dismisses Sarah Palin’s Lawsuit Against The New York Times in “News Organizations and Journalists Face High-Profile Defamation Lawsuits” in the Fall 2017 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
On Aug. 6, 2019, the Second Circuit revived Palin’s lawsuit, finding that Palin had plausibly alleged a defamation claim and that the case should proceed to the discovery phase, meaning both parties would take depositions and collect evidence. The Second Circuit noted that although Palin had made “sufficient allegations of actual malice,” the ruling should not “be construed to cast doubt on the First Amendment’s crucial constitutional protections.” (For more information on the Second Circuit’s ruling, see Second Circuit Revives Lawsuit Brought by Sarah Palin Against The New York Times in “Minnesota Supreme Court, Sixth Circuit, and Eastern District of Kentucky Rule in Notable Defamation Cases” in the Summer 2019 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
In support of its petition for rehearing, the Times argued that the panel misunderstood “two bedrock First Amendment protections.” First, the Times asserted that the panel applied the wrong standard for what constitutes a plausible allegation of actual malice. The panel, according to the Times, had relied on an improper definition of “recklessness” that was rooted in tort law and characterized as political animus. The Times contended that the Supreme Court and the Second Circuit had both rejected such definitions in the context of defamation allegations, with the former holding that it is “legally irrelevant” and the latter ruling that the definition was “insufficient as proof of actual malice.” The Times argued instead that showing actual malice must be focused solely on a speaker’s state of mind and, at minimum, requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that the speaker published the allegedly defamatory material with a “high degree of awareness” that it is probably false.
The Times’ second argument was that the wrong standard was applied for evaluating when statements are protected opinion. The Second Circuit’s ruling, the Times contended, was an “unprecedented reliance on an author’s alleged political views and resulting ill will as the predicate for a finding of actual malice.” The Second Circuit ruled that Palin needed only to show a “reasonable reader” would see the statements at issue as factual. However, the Times argued that the Supreme Court and the Second Circuit have held that a more demanding standard is needed: the statement must be “provably false.”
A coalition of news outlets and journalistic organizations (media coalition) filed an amici curiae brief supporting the Times’ petition for en banc review. The brief argued that the panel’s decision was inconsistent with the central holding of Sullivan. The brief further argued that the definition of “reckless disregard” the Court used in Sullivan is different from a dictionary definition of recklessness.
The brief cited several Supreme Court rulings, including Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64 (1964), in which the Court held that the standard required a “high degree of awareness of . . . probable falsity.” The brief also cited Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657 (1989), in which the Court found that “reckless disregard” does not mean “highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhere to by responsible publishers.” The panel’s decision, the brief contended, “is at such variance with Sullivan itself that, if followed, it could lead to significant limitations of speech about public figures that has long been protected by the First Amendment.”
On Nov. 7, 2019, several media outlets reported that the Second Circuit denied a petition by the Times for a panel rehearing or a rehearing en banc. The short decision read in part, “The panel that determined the appeal has considered the request for panel rehearing, and the active members of the Court have considered the request for rehearing.. . . [T]he petition is denied.”
The full ruling is available online at: https://legalinsurrection.com/2019/11/sarah-palin-suit-against-ny-times-still-alive-appeals-court-denies-rehearing-of-order-reinstating-case/. As the Bulletin went to press, no further legal action had been announced in the case.
Courts Dismiss Arpaio Defamation Lawsuits Against Multiple Media Outlets
In fall 2019, former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio lost two defamation lawsuits against several media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, the Huffington Post, and Rolling Stone magazine.
On Aug. 9, 2019, a federal judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Arpaio against The New York Times and editorial writer Michelle Cottle. Arpaio v. Cottle, No. 18-CV-02387 APM, 2019 WL 3767104 (D.D.C. Aug. 9, 2019). Arpaio had filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Oct. 16, 2018, alleging defamation, tortious interference, and false light concerning the publication of an August 2018 opinion piece Cottle wrote titled “Well, at least Sheriff Joe Isn’t Going to Congress — Arpaio’s Loss in Arizona’s Senate Republican Primary is a Fitting End to the Public Life of a Truly Sadistic Man.” The newspaper published the article one day after Arpaio lost the Republican primary in a U.S. Senate race.
In his complaint, Arpaio claimed that the Aug. 29, 2018 opinion piece caused reputational harm amongst Republicans and the law enforcement community and damaged his financial prospects. He also alleged that the editorial column harmed his reputation and his ability to run for the U.S. Senate in 2020. (For more information about the basis for the lawsuit and the public’s reaction, see Former Arizona Sheriff Brings $147.5 Million Defamation Lawsuit Against The New York Times in “Defamation Cases Continue for Right-Wing Radio Host and BuzzFeed; Former Political Candidates Bring Defamation Lawsuits,” in the Fall 2018 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
On Jan. 4, 2019, The New York Times filed a motion to dismiss on multiple grounds. The newspaper argued that the story simply summarized publicly available information about Arpaio, and that the article constituted “core political speech protected by the First Amendment.” The Times further asserted that all the statements made in the article were substantially true as a matter of law, and that Arpaio did not plead facts sufficient to establish actual malice, the standard created in New York Times v. Sullivan requiring proof that defendants knowingly made false statements or made statements with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity. 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
The Times also invoked Washington, D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Act. D.C. Code § 16-5501 et seq. Anti-SLAPP laws provide procedures for early dismissal of meritless lawsuits filed to intimidate people for exercising their First Amendment rights. The newspaper argued that the article was published “in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest,” and that Arpaio’s lawsuit was not likely to succeed. (For more information on the motion to dismiss, see Joe Arpaio Sues CNN, Huffington Post, and Rolling Stone; New York Times Files Motion to Dismiss in Similar Lawsuit in “Federal Judge Dismisses Defamation Lawsuit Against BuzzFeed News; News Organizations Face Significant Defamation Lawsuits and Settlements” in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
Judge Amit P. Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that Arpaio’s complaint failed to plead facts sufficient to establish actual malice. Arpaio argued actual malice is a factual issue that cannot be resolved in a motion to dismiss, but the court disagreed and cited previous cases that had been dismissed because of failure to plead sufficient facts supporting actual malice.
Second, Arpaio further argued that actual malice could be inferred from the complaint because “The New York Times’ political partisanship and liberal bias know no reasonable bounds[.]” However, Mehta found that Arpaio supplied no facts supporting this proposition and that even if the newspaper’s positions were construed as unfavorable toward Arpaio, a claim of animus is not sufficient to show actual malice. “[I]t would be sadly ironic for judges in our adversarial system to conclude . . . that the mere taking of an adversarial stance is antithetical to the truthful presentation of facts,” Mehta wrote, citing Tavoulareas v. Piro, 817 F.2d 762, 795 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
Third, Arpaio alleged that the “very nature” of the article was evidence that The New York Times knew the published material was false. Mehta rejected this claim as well, writing, “[T]here is nothing about the [a]rticle’s assertions of fact that makes them self-evidently false.” In making that determination, the court also found that various words Arpaio argued were incendiary, such as “true American villain,” “sadist,” and “disgrace,” are “too imprecise or subjective to be verifiably false facts.” Mehta wrote in a footnote that Arpaio did not provide any facts to establish that the published material was false as well.
Finally, Arpaio’s remaining claims were also dismissed. Citing precedent, Mehta held that rejection of the defamation claim required dismissal of the tortious interference claim. Mehta also found that Arpaio’s complaint lacked adequate facts to plead tortious interference. He also dismissed the false light claim, reasoning that because Arpaio is a public figure, he would have been required to prove actual malice. And because Arpaio’s complaint lacked sufficient facts to plausibly establish actual malice, the court said the false light claim must also fail.
However, Mehta denied the Times’ motion to dismiss under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act. The court said the same reasons applied that were articulated in Libre By Nexus v. BuzzFeed, 311 F.Supp. 3d 149, 158–161 (D.D.C. 2018), in which Mehta also denied a motion to dismiss under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act because of precedent in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure must control pre-trial dismissal of a case and not the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act. Abbas v. Foreign Policy Grp., LLC, 783 F.3d 1328 (D.C. Cir. 2015). Mehta’s full ruling in the Arpaio case is available online at: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6259894/Dismiss-Arpaio.pdf. As the Bulletin went to press, no further legal announcements had been made in the case.
On Oct. 31, 2019, a defamation lawsuit filed by Arpaio against CNN, the Huffington Post, and Rolling Stone was also dismissed. Arpaio v. Zucker, No. 18-CV-02894 RCL, 2019 WL 5653660 (D.D.C. 2019). At issue in the suit was Arpaio’s 2017 criminal conviction for contempt of court, for which he was pardoned by President Donald Trump. The crime was a misdemeanor, but Rolling Stone described Arpaio as an “ex-felon” in November 2018 and a CNN anchor referred to him as a “convicted felon” in January 2018. Also in November 2018, the Huffington Post published an article that said Arpaio was “sent to prison for contempt of court,” but he in fact was not sent to prison. The three news outlets subsequently issued corrections.
The complaint put forward three causes of action: defamation per se, tortious interference with prospective business relations, and false light. It alleged that the publications were defamatory, made maliciously, and subjected Arpaio to “widespread ridicule and humiliation,” harming his reputation, and causing pain and financial damage by falsely claiming he was convicted of a felony crime. The complaint also asserted that the defendants’ publications damaged Arpaio’s reputation within the Republican establishment, interfering with potential business relationships and harming his chances at running for the U.S. Senate in 2020. Finally, the complaint claimed that the publications painted Arpaio in a false light that would be offensive to a reasonable person by stating that he had been convicted of a felony. (For more information on the background of the case and the complaint, see Joe Arpaio Sues CNN, Huffington Post, and Rolling Stone; New York Times Files Motion to Dismiss in Similar Lawsuit in “Federal Judge Dismisses Defamation Lawsuit Against BuzzFeed News; News Organizations Face Significant Defamation Lawsuits and Settlements” in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the CNN statement was substantially true, but that the Rolling Stone and Huffington Post statements were not substantially true. The court found that the erroneous CNN statement, which referred to Arpaio as a “convicted felon,” was substantially true. This was so because the broadcast contextualized the error, making the gist of the statement substantially true and the difference between a felony and misdemeanor “less meaningful,” the court wrote. The Rolling Stone reference to Arpaio as an “ex-felon” lacked context, thus the sting of the error was label itself of being an ex-felon, which the court said was not substantially true. Regarding the Huffington Post, the court said readers of the article would have been given the impression that Arpaio was behind bars because of the contempt of court conviction, but the court found this was not substantially true because the sting of being in prison “is not captured by the fact that [Arpaio] was convicted of contempt of court.”
Lamberth also rejected an argument by the Huffington Post that Arpaio was a libel-proof plaintiff. The erroneous claim that Arpaio was in prison is different from his conviction of contempt of court, Lamberth said, concluding, “The erroneous claim was a distinct harm that could have damaged Mr. Arpaio’s reputation even further, so the Court holds that he is not a libel-proof plaintiff under these circumstances.”
Finally, the court found that Arpaio failed to plead facts sufficient to establish actual malice. The court said Arpaio had merely recited the definition of actual malice in the complaint. And while Arpaio also alleged the media defendants were motivated by political differences and “leftist enmity” such claims are not relevant to an actual malice inquiry, according to the court.
Lamberth wrote that while mistakes by the press can cause harm, the news media have an important responsibility to help the electorate make informed decisions. “[T]he courts ultimately must vigorously protect the First Amendment rights of journalists and the press to issue their reports, unless there is some evidence of actual malice attributable to them,” Lamberth wrote.
In a Nov. 12, 2019, op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP media lawyer John C. Greiner praised Lamberth’s ruling and said the court’s treatment of the actual malice claim is particularly relevant today given the particularly partisan political climate. “The First Amendment protects the right to criticize the performance of public officials. If those public officials could too easily sue for critical comments, that protection would be eroded,” Greiner wrote.
Lamberth’s opinion is available online at: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6535148/Arpaio.pdf. As the Bulletin went to press, no further announcements had been made in the case.
Justice Kavanaugh’s Former Classmate Files Defamation Lawsuit Against the Huffington Post and Former Reporter
On Aug. 21, 2019, a former classmate of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sued the Huffington Post and one of its former reporters for defamation after the news outlet published a story alleging that the classmate had sold drugs that killed a member of the Kennedy family.
The plaintiff, Derrick Evans, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi seeking unspecified damages, including punitive damages. The story, written by Ashley Feinberg, accused Evans of helping obtain cocaine that resulted in the death of David Kennedy in 1984. Kennedy was the son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The Huffington Post relied on one anonymous source to make the claim. A key passage from the story read: “The former student spoke of Kennedy’s death as the end of the school’s free-for-all party scene and the catalyst for changes in Georgetown Prep culture. Two students — David’s brother Doug, and his friend Derrick Evans — had helped score the coke.” Evans was not contacted for comment before the Huffington Post published the story.
The Huffington Post later retracted the passage from the article and appended a correction to the story, but the correction still asserted that Evans played a role in the incident. The correction stated, “This article previously stated incorrectly that Doug Kennedy was involved in helping his brother to purchase drugs in 1984. Kennedy was only sharing a room with Derrick Evans, who helped David purchase the drugs, according to an affidavit obtained by [T]he New York Times. We regret the error.”
Evans asserted that, contrary to the text of the Huffington Post’s correction, The New York Times never obtained an affidavit supporting that claim, and that previous reporting by the Times showed that Evans actually helped authorities identify the people responsible for supplying Kennedy with the cocaine. The complaint furthered alleged that the Huffington Post knew the challenged statements were false or should have known they were false. The lawsuit claimed that the Huffington Post “fabricated” the claim that Evans helped get the drugs in an effort to “drive traffic to its website.”
The complaint alleged that the story was libel per se because it accused Evans not only of criminal activity, but also asserted he was partly responsible for Kennedy’s death. The complaint further claims the challenged statements “were knowingly, recklessly and outrageously false” and were “published maliciously and in bad faith.” Had Feinberg and her editors “undertaken even the most basic internet search of publicly available articles concerning the investigation into David Kennedy’s death, they would have learned, if they did not already know, that Mr. Evans actively assisted law enforcement in identifying and prosecuting the individuals who actually sold the illegal narcotics to David Kennedy,” the complaint read. The full complaint is available online at: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6320798/Complaint-Evans-v-HuffPo-Feinberg.pdf.
On May 3, 2019, Evans asked the Huffington Post for an apology and retraction of the challenged statements, a request that Evans asserted complied with Mississippi state law requiring notice to publishers of defamatory material before taking legal action. Miss. Code Ann. § 95-1-5.
The Huffington Post and Feinberg summarily moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction. As the Bulletin went to press, no ruling had been made on the motion to dismiss.
Sandmann Lawsuit Partially Reinstated Against The Washington Post
On Oct. 28, 2019, a federal district court judge partially reinstated a lawsuit against The Washington Post brought by the family of Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student involved in a January 2019 confrontation with Nathan Phillips, a Native American man, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Sandmann v. WP Company LLC, 19-CV-19 WOB-CJS (E.D. Ky. 2019). Judge William O. Bertelsman of the U.S. District for the Eastern District of Kentucky had previously dismissed the lawsuit in July 2019 upon finding that none of the 33 challenged statements were capable of a defamatory meaning.
The case arose on Jan. 18, 2019 when several media outlets, as well as numerous social media accounts, circulated photos and videos of an alleged confrontation between Sandmann and Phillips during two separate rallies taking place at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post first reported on the incident after a video of the encounter, which was recorded by a participant in the Indigenous Peoples March, as well as several photos, were posted by the Twitter account @2020fight.
On Feb. 19, 2019, Sandmann’s family filed a lawsuit alleging that the video was “selectively edited” in order to show Sandmann as the aggressor and that “the Post actively, negligently and recklessly participated in making the [video] go viral on social media,” without investigating the validity of the video or the Twitter account. The complaint further asserted that the Post ignored journalistic standards when interpreting the incident. Following the filing of the lawsuit, several media experts argued that Sandmann would face challenges in winning the case. (For more information on the confrontation, lawsuit, and commentary from media experts, see Covington Catholic High School Student Sues Washington Post and CNN for Defamation in “Federal Judge Dismisses Defamation Lawsuit Against BuzzFeed News; News Organizations Face Significant Defamation Lawsuits and Settlements” in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
On July 26, 2019, Bertelsman dismissed the complaint “in its entirety.” He held that several of the alleged defamatory statements by the Post were “protected opinion” under the First Amendment. He also found that other alleged defamatory statements were not “about” or “concerning” Sandmann, or did not constitute defamation per se, meaning statements that accuse an individual of crimes or immoral acts and are presumed to be harmful. (For more information on Bertelsman’s initial ruling, see Federal Judge Dismisses $250 Million Lawsuit Against The Washington Post in “Minnesota Supreme Court, Sixth Circuit, and Eastern District of Kentucky Rule in Notable Defamation Cases” in the Summer 2019 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
However, on Oct. 28, 2019, Bertelsman wrote that he would allow the plaintiffs to begin discovery based on three statements in the Post’s coverage. Those statements said Sandmann “blocked” Phillips and “would not allow him to retreat.” Although Bertelsman had previously found that it was Phillips’ opinion that he was being blocked and not allowed to retreat, and that he had conveyed those beliefs to the newspaper, he ruled that this “should . . . be the subject of proof.” Bertelsman wrote, “Suffice to say that the Court has given this matter careful review and concludes that ‘justice requires’ that discovery be had regarding these statements and their context. The Court will then consider them anew on summary judgment.”
Bertelsman’s full five-page opinion is available online at: https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3Aa4b151d1-ee39-4ad9-9769-5247150e391f. As the Bulletin went to press, litigation in the case remained ongoing.
On Oct. 28, 2019, Sandmann family attorney L. Lin Wood told The Washington Post that he was “extremely pleased” by the decision. “We look forward to engaging in full discovery to develop the factual record in this case, which we believe will ultimately lead to the Post being held accountable for its accusatory coverage of Nicholas Sandmann,” Wood said.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 21, 2019, Bertelsman similarly ruled that a separate, $275 million libel lawsuit the Sandmann family filed against NBC Universal could proceed. Bertelsman wrote, “[T]he court finds that the statements that plaintiff ‘blocked’ Phillips or did not allow him to retreat, if false, meet the test of being libelous per se[.]” The Washington Times reported on November 21 that Bertelsman had made the same finding in the Sandmann family’s $250 million lawsuit against CNN as well. As the Bulletin went to press, litigation remained ongoing in the cases against NBC Universal and CNN.
Chinese Billionaire Sues Multiple News Organizations for Defamation
On Aug. 2, 2019, a Chinese billionaire sued multiple United States news organizations for defamation, seeking $50 million from each following alleged claims that he was a spy for the Chinese government. The plaintiff, Guo Wengui, sued CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia in New York state court, as well as the Miami Herald and Sinclair Broadcast Group (Sinclair) in federal court in Florida.
The lawsuit against WarnerMedia arose from a July 23, 2019 segment of “Erin Burnett OutFront” on CNN. Wengui alleges that statements made by Burnett and a guest of the program, Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey, implied that he was a spy for the Chinese government and was going to be deported.
One challenged element of the broadcast was a short tease into the segment, in which Burnett said: “New tonight, the Chinese billionaire and member of Mar-a-Lago accused of being a spy.” Wengui also claims that Blaskey made libelous remarks on the program. Blaskey said on air that a company Wengui had previously partnered with accused him of “trying to gather intel for the Chinese government.” She further said that it was “unclear if federal authorities are acting on that information.” Wengui contended that those allegations were contained in a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed, and that the additional remark implied he had “done something illegal that ‘federal authorities’ ought to ‘act on.’”
“To further embellish their story, Defendants made statements that insinuated that Mr. Guo was associated with the woman arrested sneaking into Mar-a-Lago with malware and Cindy Yang who has been accused of selling access to Mar-a-Lago and President Trump,” the complaint read. “Even a modicum of due diligence would have shown the falsity of these statements.”
In a separate complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against the Miami Herald, Wengui alleged that he was defamed in an article that Blaskey and fellow reporter Jay Weaver wrote titled, “He’s a Chinese Billionaire and a Member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. Is he also a Communist Spy?” The story quoted a court filing from a lawsuit involving Wengui that the reporters said accused him of being a spy for the Chinese government. Wengui asserted that the reporters misunderstood the court filing and ignored the fact that the lawsuit was dismissed. Weingui also alleged that the article falsely asserted that he had avoided deportation because he is a member of Mar-a-Lago. The complaint further disputes Blaskey’s comments during the CNN interview, which are referenced above. Wengui sought $50 million from the newspaper.
Finally, Wengui sued Sinclair based on a story aired by its television station in West Palm Beach, Fla., WPEC-TV. The story, which was broadcast on July 24, 2019, reported the allegations that Wengui was a spy. The complaint specifically refuted comments from an expert quoted in the story who said Wengui’s membership at Mar-a-Lago made him a target of foreign intelligence operations, and that such access would make him a good spy. The lawsuit further asserted that far from being a spy for China, Wengui had been an outspoken critic of the Community Party there and is seeking asylum in the United States.
In all three lawsuits, Wengui referenced previous defamation actions in which allegations that he was a spy were found to be defamatory, including one case in which he claimed to have won $100,000 in damages. Wengui Guo v. Yeliang Xia, 18-CV-174 LO/TCB, 2019 WL 2477607 (E.D. Va. 2019); Guo Wengui v. Hongkuan Li, 18-CV-259 PWG, 2019 WL 2288348 (D. Md. 2019).
On Nov. 11, 2019, Wengui notified the court that he and Sinclair had reached a settlement in the case. Details of the settlement were not disclosed in publicly available court records. As the Bulletin went to press, litigation regarding the other lawsuits remained ongoing.
— Jonathan Anderson
Silha Research Assistant