The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

Alan Dershowitz's Libel Lawsuit Against CNN Can Go Forward

The lawsuit stemmed from CNN's coverage of Dershowitz's argument in the first Trump impeachment trial.


From today's decision by Judge Raag Singhal (S.D. Fla.) in Dershowitz v. CNN, Inc.:

In January 2020, Dershowitz represented the President of the United States in an impeachment trial before the United States Senate. This dispute concerns CNN's coverage of an argument Dershowitz made to the Senate about whether a president can be impeached and removed from office if he takes any action that is motivated by a desire to be reelected. According to the Complaint, Dershowitz gave the following answer to a question by Senator Ted Cruz:

The only thing that would make a quid pro quo unlawful is if the quo were somehow illegal. Now we talk about motive. There are three possible motives that a political figure could have. One, a motive in the public interest and the Israel argument would be in the public interest. The second is in his own political interest and the third, which hasn't been mentioned, would be his own financial interest, his own pure financial interest, just putting money in the bank. I want to focus on the second one just for one moment. Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest and, mostly you are right, your election is in the public interest, and if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.

Following the day's impeachment proceedings, CNN aired a clip of this argument that featured only the last sentence and omitted Dershowitz' words that a quid pro quo would be unlawful if the quo were somehow illegal…. Dershowitz alleges that several CNN commentators responded to the truncated clip and "exploded into a one-sided and false narrative that Professor Dershowitz believes and argued that as long as the President believes his reelection is in the public interest, that he could do anything at all—including illegal acts—and be immune from impeachment." Dershowitz alleges CNN commentators made the following defamatory statements [Dershowitz identified the underlined portions of these statements as those he alleges are defamatory]:

Having worked on about a dozen campaigns, there is always the sense that, boy, if we win, it's better for the country. But that doesn't give you license to commit crimes or to do things that are unethical. So, it was absurd. What I thought when I was watching it was this is un-American. This is what you hear from Stalin. This is what you hear from Mussolini, what you hear from authoritarians, from Hitler, from all the authoritarian people who rationalized, in some cases genocide, based on what was in the public interest." —Joe Lockhart @ 7:11 p.m., January 29, 2020.

The president's defense team [Dershowitz] seems to be redefining the powers of the president, redefining them towards infinity."… [truncated clip played] … "If you look at what he says there it blows your mind. He says if a president is running for re-election because he thinks getting elected will help America, he can do anything, anything. And that redefines the presidency and America." —John Berman @ 6:17 a.m., January 30, 2020.

I did not go to Harvard Law, but I did go to the University of Texas School of Law, where I studied criminal law and constitutional law, but never dreamed a legendary legal mind would set them both ablaze on the Senate floor. The Dershowitz Doctrine would make presidents immune from every criminal act, so long as they could plausibly claim they did it to boost their re-election effort. Campaign finance laws: out the window. Bribery statutes: gone. Extortion: no more. This is Donald Trump's fondest figurative dream: to be able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it." —Paul Begala on, January 29, 2020 @ 9:11 p.m.

This narrative, claims Dershowitz, damaged his reputation as a legal scholar and subjected him to ridicule on news outlets, talk shows, and social media….

CNN argues that its airing of verbatim statements that Dershowitz made on the floor of the United States Senate is unquestionably protected by the fair report privilege…. The fair report privilege applies "[i]f the report of a public official proceeding is an accurate or a fair abridgment." …

[T]he question is whether CNN's broadcasts presented an accurate or fair abridgment of Dershowitz' comments to the Senate…. During the impeachment trial, Senator Ted Cruz submitted a question for Dershowitz to answer: "As a matter of law, does it matter if there was a quid pro quo? Is it true that quid pro quos are often used in foreign policy?" Dershowitz answered at length and gave several hypotheticals of quid pro quo that he considered would be lawful.

At several points in his response, Dershowitz stated that a quid pro quo that is unlawful would be one based on an illegal motive….. "The only thing that would make a quid pro quo unlawful is that if the quo were in some way  illegal… There are three possible motives that a political figure can have: One, a motive in the public interest, and the Israel argument would be in the public interest; the second is in his own political interest; and the third, which hasn't been mentioned, would be in his own financial interest, just putting money in the bank…. [F]or it to be impeachable, you would have to discern that he or she made a decision solely on the basis of, as the House managers put it, corrupt motives, and it cannot be a corrupt motive if you have a mixed motive that partially involves the national interest, partially involves electoral, and does not involve personal pecuniary interest.

"The House managers do not allege that this decision, this quid pro quo, as they call it—and the question is based on the hypothesis that there was a quid pro quo. I am not attacking the facts. They never allege that it was based on pure financial reasons. It would be a much harder case. If a hypothetical President of the United States said to a hypothetical leader of a foreign country: Unless you build a hotel with my name on it and unless you give me a million-dollar kickback, I will withhold the funds. That is an easy case. That is purely corrupt and in the purely private interest.…" …

CNN presented an abridgment of Dershowitz' answer to Senator Cruz' question. The abridgment is not accurate, to the extent that it omitted a crucial qualification: that an illegal motive for a quid pro quo would be corrupt. As a result, the commentators' statements—that Dershowitz believes a President can do anything, even commit crimes if it would help his re-election—are not based upon a fair and accurate summary of Dershowitz' statement to the Senate.

CNN argues that editors and publishers have great discretion to determine what information to publish. This is correct. But the qualified fair report privilege "merely means that the report of [official] proceedings must be correct."

CNN argues that Dershowitz' response to Senator Cruz' statement was ambiguous and that CNN was reasonable in its belief that Dershowitz argued "that presidents cannot be impeached for actions taken to win an election if the President believes his own victory would be in the public interest, regardless of the legality of those actions." That is an argument that CNN may present to a jury. But because the broadcasts did not present a fair and accurate abridgment of Dershowitz' remarks, CNN cannot avail itself of the fair report privilege.

Finally, CNN argues that the media has no obligation to present additional information that would present a subject in a better light. This too is correct…. [But] the CNN broadcast segments set forth in Dershowitz' Complaint were focused specifically on Dershowitz' comments to the Senate and, as presented on air, changed the gist of what Dershowitz said. For the fair report privilege to apply a defendant must have "presented a fair and accurate report of the source documents." The CNN broadcasts do not meet that standard….

CNN's next ground for dismissal is that the allegedly defamatory statements were non-actionable opinion…. [But] "[a] statement that although ostensibly in the form of an opinion 'implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts as the basis for the opinion' is actionable." Further, "where the speaker or writer neglects to provide the audience with an adequate factual foundation prior to engaging in the offending discourse, liability may arise." The Complaint alleges that CNN's broadcasts lacked the "adequate factual foundation" that would have prevented the commentators from mischaracterizing Dershowitz' argument. The Court concludes that the Complaint plausibly alleges that the comments made on CNN and were defamatory statements of mixed opinion….

[As to actual malice, Dershowitz] alleges that CNN knew for certain that he had prefaced his remarks with the qualifier that a quid pro quo could not include an illegal act because it aired the entire statement earlier in the day, but that CNN knowingly omitted that portion when it played the truncated clip "time and again." He alleges that the truncated clip was created "intentionally and deliberately with knowledge and malice to facilitate its ability to falsely claim that plaintiff said the opposite of what he actually said." And, finally, Dershowitz alleges that commentators made their statements with knowledge or reckless disregard that they were false….

In a footnote, CNN argues that Dershowitz' "claims of disinterested political malevolence are insufficient" to establish actual malice. The Court agrees and, further, concludes that these allegations should be stricken as immaterial and impertinent.

In paragraph 14 of the Complaint, Dershowitz alleges:

Professor Dershowitz was one of the most revered and celebrated legal minds of the past half century. His reputation relating to his expertise in criminal and constitutional matters was one that lawyers would only dream about attaining in their lifetimes. However, Professor Dershowitz appears to have made one mistake. He chose to defend the President of the United States and defend the U.S. Constitution at a moment in time where CNN has decided that doing so is not permitted. For this, CNN set out to punish him and destroy his credibility and reputation, and unfortunately, succeeded.

The Supreme Court has stated that "[a defendant's] motive in publishing a story … cannot provide a sufficient basis for finding actual malice." … Paragraph 14 of Dershowitz' Complaint alleges that CNN was motivated by political animus. As Judge Lamberth noted in Arpaio, "Allegations of 'leftist enmity' cannot trump the guarantees of the First Amendment." … [T]he allegations in paragraph 14 are immaterial to the claim and are an impertinent salvo that do not belong in this case.