Free Speech

Nigerian Separatist Group Sues Wash. Times, U. of Baltimore, Professor for Libel

The lawsuit is brought by the group Indigenous People of Biafra, which has been labeled a terrorist group by the Nigerian government.

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Just filed yesterday, Indigenous People of Biafra v. Sheehan; some of the allegations about the group are likely matters of opinion, but some seem to be factual allegations. (Naturally, I can't speak to whether the allegations are indeed false, and knowingly or recklessly false.)

In principle, I would think that a foreign organization—which the Complaint says is a "UK registered Community Interest Company"—would be able to sue for libel in the U.S., just as an American business corporation could. N.Y. Times v. Sullivan did hold that an American government can't sue for defamation liability, even for knowing lies, and the same would likely apply to a foreign government. But I think that a nongovernmental organization, whether or not it's also a would-be separatist government (and it's not clear that it is), wouldn't be covered by this principle.

I expect plaintiff would be treated as a "public figure," and would have to show "actual malice" on the defendants' part, which is to say knowing or reckless falsehood, and not just an honest mistake; but if it can show that, then it might be able to prevail. I think it's very unlikely that this can be shown as to the Washington Times, since the Times' editors are quite unlikely to be knowledgeable enough on the subject, and were likely counting on the expertise of Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, the author of the article. But in principle plaintiff's case might progress against Sheehan (and perhaps against his employer, the University of Baltimore, on the respondeat superior theory that the employer is liable for the torts of its employees committed on the job)—though of course plaintiff would have to prove that Sheehan's statements were factually false, and it's quite possible that they won' be able to do that.

Still, it's an unusual sort of libel case, so I thought I'd note it.