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CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY INTL. v. TIME WARNER

November 14, 1995

CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY INTERNATIONAL, Plaintiff, against TIME WARNER, INC., TIME INC. MAGAZINE COMPANY, and RICHARD BEHAR, Defendants.

Peter K. Leisure, U.S.D.J.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEISURE

LEISURE, District Judge:

 Plaintiff Church of Scientology International ("CSI") brought this action to recover for damages allegedly suffered from the publication of false and defamatory statements concerning CSI in the cover story of the May 6, 1991 issue of Time magazine. Defendants Time Warner, Inc., Time Inc. Magazine Company, and Richard Behar (collectively "Time") move this Court for summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, on the grounds that they lacked actual malice in publishing the article about CSI, an admitted public figure. See Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' First Set of Requests for Admission to Plaintiff. For the reasons stated below, defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

 DISCUSSION

 "Summary judgment is proper only if, viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact" as to an essential element of a claim. Buttry v. General Signal Corp., No. 95-7135, 68 F.3d 1488, 1995 U.S. App. LEXIS 30843, *9, 1995 WL 628556, at *3 (2d Cir. 1995). A public figure suing for libel must prove, as one of the essential elements of the claim, that the defendant published the material with actual malice, i.e., actual knowledge of its falsity or with serious subjective doubts as to its truth. See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686, 84 S. Ct. 710 (1964); St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731-32, 20 L. Ed. 2d 262, 88 S. Ct. 1323 (1968). The First Amendment further requires that the plaintiff prove actual malice with clear and convincing evidence. See id. Therefore, "there is no genuine issue if the evidence presented in the opposing affidavits is of insufficient caliber or quantity to allow a rational finder of fact to find actual malice by clear and convincing evidence." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).

 Although a defendant's state of mind is at issue in a libel case covered by New York Times, that fact alone cannot preclude summary judgment, for First Amendment protection cannot be emasculated by unwillingness on the part of a court to grant summary judgment where "affirmative evidence of the defendant's state of mind" is lacking. A libel suit cannot be allowed to get to the jury, at enormous expense to the defendant, based on mere assertions of malice by the plaintiff. Cf. St. Surin v. Virgin Islands Daily News, Inc., 21 F.3d 1309, 1318 (3d Cir. 1994) ("Summary judgment for the publisher is quite often appropriate because of the difficulty a public official has in showing 'actual malice.'"). Indeed, without judicious use of summary judgment to dispose of libel suits, "the threat of being put to the defense of a lawsuit . . . may be as chilling to the exercise of First Amendment freedoms as fear of the outcome of the lawsuit itself." Immuno AG. v. Moor-Jankowski, 74 N.Y.2d 548, 561, 549 N.E.2d 129, 135, 549 N.Y.S.2d 938, 944 (1989) (internal quotation marks omitted), vacated, 497 U.S. 1021 (1990), adhered to, 77 N.Y.2d 235, 567 N.E.2d 1270, 566 N.Y.S.2d 906 (1991), cert. denied, 500 U.S. 954 (1991). Because the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are designed to ensure that debate, not litigation, is vigorous, the subjective nature of the test of liability cannot create a bar to summary disposition of libel suits. *fn1" See McLee v. Chrysler Corp., 38 F.3d 67, 68 (2d Cir. 1994) (ruling that district court's view -- that summary judgment was unavailable in discrimination cases where employer's intent was at issue -- was unsupportable). Indeed, this Court finds little to distinguish silence enforced by oppressive litigation from "silence coerced by law -- the argument of force in its worst form." Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-76, 71 L. Ed. 1095, 47 S. Ct. 641 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

 In addition, the Court must "consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks." New York Times Co., 376 U.S. at 270. As quoted in New York Times,

 
"In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times, resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy."

 Id. at 271 (quoting Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 310, 84 L. Ed. 1213, 60 S. Ct. 900 (1940)). Because sharp disagreement is essential to robust debate about important issues, "actual malice under the New York Times standard should not be confused with the concept of malice as an evil intent or a motive arising from spite or ill will." Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496, 510, 115 L. Ed. 2d 447, 111 S. Ct. 2419 (1991). The speaker's belief in his statements, even his exaggerations, enhances, rather than diminishes, the likelihood that they are protected from libel attack by the First Amendment. Only where the speaker himself lacks this conviction, where the speaker entertains serious doubt as to the veracity of his statements, is the false statement actionable. See St. Amant, 390 U.S. at 731.

 As a threshold matter, then, the Court considers plaintiff's assertions that Behar, after publishing an article in Forbes critical of the church,

 
targeted the Church with a fixed view of it as a 'destructive cult.' In the next five years, through the publication of his article in the May 6, 1991 issue of Time, Behar refined his focus -- gathering negative information from Scientology adversaries and proposing anti-Church articles -- while never changing any view about the Church, never accepting anything a Scientologist said and uniformly ignoring anything positive he learned about the Church.

 Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment at 2. As noted, malice in the sense of hatred or ill-will is often indicative of lack of the actual malice required under New York Times, and therefore would tend to undermine, not support, plaintiff's case. In addition, "reckless conduct is not measured by whether a reasonably prudent man would have published, or would have investigated before publishing." St. Amant, 390 U.S. at 731. However, the combination of inadequate investigation with bias on the part of the publisher can give rise to an inference of actual malice. See Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657, 682, 105 L. Ed. 2d 562, 109 S. Ct. 2678 (1989). With a showing of an extreme departure from standard investigative techniques, bias of the reporter becomes relevant to explain this extreme departure as more than mere carelessness -- rather as purposeful avoidance of the truth. Plaintiff therefore devotes much of its opposition to the motion to attempting to demonstrate Behar's predetermined bias toward the church. However, plaintiff has failed to demonstrate the correlative circumstance of inadequate investigation to make its evidence of bias probative of actual malice, rather than probative of lack thereof. Without a showing of inadequate investigation, bias merely confirms the publisher's firmly-held belief in the allegedly defamatory statements.

 With these principles in mind, the Court considers each allegedly libelous statement individually to determine whether a rational finder of fact could find actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. See Tavoulareas v. Piro, 260 U.S. App. D.C. 39, 817 F.2d 762, 794 (D.C. Cir.) (en banc) ("Defamation plaintiffs cannot show actual malice in the abstract; they must demonstrate actual malice in conjunction with a false ...


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