On Friday, YouTube announced changes to its video recommendation algorithm in an effort to “reduc[e] recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness.” YouTube committed to “tak[e] a closer look at how we can reduce the spread of content that comes close to—but doesn’t quite cross the line of—violating our Community Guidelines.”
This week, the French parliament will debate proposed legislation that is designed to stop what it calls the “manipulation of information” and what is colloquially referred to as “fake news.” What differentiates this bill from similar ones currently under consideration by other countries, however, is that it would change the rules for speech in the time leading up to elections.
After filing suit last year against several researchers and an academic journal for publishing a paper (the “C17 paper”) that disagreed with his own, engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson has dropped his suit. In an FAQ document posted on his website, Jacobson defended his original claim, saying that he did not file the suit simply because he disagreed with the scientific conclusions in the C17 paper, but because the paper contained false factual statements upon which its conclusion relied.
In what appears to be a novel application of defamation law to disputes within the academic community, one researcher has filed suit against a peer reviewer and an academic journal for criticism made in a peer review article of his work. The plaintiff, Mark Z. Jacobson, is an engineering professor at a large research university. He alleges, in a complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court on September 29, 2017, that the criticism of his work included false and misleading statements amounting to defamation. Those statements include criticism of Jacobson’s computer modeling—which, according to the complaint, is particularly damaging to Jacobson’s career because it is centered on that very topic. Jacobson also alleges that the publication violated its publication guidelines and breached its contract with Jacobson. The suit seeks $10 million in damages.
Earlier this year, ABC News, through its parent company, reached a midtrial settlement with Beef Products Inc. in the now infamous “pink slime” lawsuit. Under South Dakota food libel statutes, damages in the case could have reached as much as $5.7 billion. Despite resolving the dispute with Beef Products, ABC News is back in court—this time to resolve a related coverage dispute with one of its insurers.
On Monday, July 17, 2017, world-renowned antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam sued the parent company of a popular newspaper alleging that a story it published defamed him. The article, titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations,” discussed two potentially unrelated stories: (1) incidents of the Islamic State’s antiquities looting; and (2) a number of potentially separate investigations by European and American authorities “looking at,” but not charging, Aboutaam and his family business for “handling” or “trafficking” looted antiquities. While the newspaper has stood by the story, calling it “thoroughly reported, fair and wholly accurate,” Aboutaam maintains that he “has suffered personal humiliation (…) public contempt, ridicule, or disgrace, which has induced an evil opinion of him in the minds of many people.” In his complaint, one of the more intriguing claims levied by Aboutaam is that the layout of the article, along with the images accompanying it, constitutes defamation by implication because it led to the natural conclusion that Aboutaam had ties to ISIS looting. Beyond the merits of the specific claims on either side, the case highlights potential new complications in the field of defamation by implication.
On June 27, Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate, filed a complaint against The New York Times for defamation in the Southern District of New York. Palin alleges a Times editorial defamed her by indirectly blaming her for the 2011 mass shooting that injured Rep.Gabrielle Giffords. The June 14 editorial, published in the hours following the shooting during congressional baseball practice, referenced the 2011 shooting and said in that case, “the link to political incitement was clear.” The editorial then noted that before the shooting, Palin’s political action committee had circulated materials with stylized crosshairs on them. Following a large number of disputes of this claim and related public criticisms, on June 15 the Times apologized over Twitter and twice issued corrections, saying in relevant part: “An editorial on Thursday about the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.”
Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed a defamation case against former Governor Deval Patrick, related to statements Patrick had made about his decision to replace the chair of the State Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB). In doing so, the court reiterated the tenet that evidence of ill will or spite by the defendant, standing alone, is insufficient to establish actual malice–a needed component in a defamation claim under these circumstances.