The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From One for Israel v. Reuven, decided yesterday by Judge Raag Singhal (S.D. Fla.):
[Plaintiff] One for Israel is a ministry initiative whose mission is to evangelize Israelis and promote Messianic Judaism. [Plaintiffs] Eitan Bar … and Mordechai Vaknin … are missionaries working for the ministry who teach the New Testament and share Gospel of Jesus Christ with youth, soldiers, and students…. The defendant is Yaron Reuven …, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi who maintains a website, a mobile application, and a YouTube channel to promote Orthodox Judaism….
On February 8, 2021, Reuven published a video titled, "What Happened when Missionaries ONE FOR ISRAEL Met Rabbi Daniel Asor" in which he made the statements at issue in this case. Reuven published the video on his YouTube channel, Facebook, and other social media platforms. About 2 minutes and 37 seconds into the video, Reuven tells viewers about a meeting that took place in 2014 at a coffeeshop in Israel. As related on the video, Rabbi Asor met with Eitan and Vaknin to debate religious issues before an individual who was considering converting to Messianic Judaism.
At the meeting, Rabbi Asor "destroy[ed]" both Eitan and Vaknin by proving them wrong. Reuven reports that Eitan and Vaknin got angry and tried to beat up Rabbi Asor. He says Eitan and Vaknin "tried to break his bones!"
Plaintiffs contend the story Reuven told is false and an invention to negatively portray them and the organization for which they work. The video has over 7,500 views on YouTube. Plaintiffs allege they have suffered significant reputational and psychological damage because of the release of the video and brought this action seeking compensation from Reuven.
The court concluded the missionaries weren't limited purpose public figures, because that would require them to have injected themselves into a "public controversy," and there was no such controversy here:
[T]he public controversy must be more than merely newsworthy; the public must legitimately be concerned about it. Reuven argues that the public controversy here is the "theological conflict between Judaism and Christian missionaries." While this "conflict" may be of deep and abiding interest to many, it is certainly not something discussed in the news or that the public is highly concerned with. Examples of public controversies in previous cases have included the Watergate scandal; what should be taught about homosexuality and whether the rights of homosexuals should be restricted; and the 2004 election. Theological debates do not generate comparable public controversy.
I'm skeptical about that, since controversies that predominantly concern particular religious communities—and may have gotten little attention outside those communities—would qualify. See, e.g., Contemporary Mission Co. v. N.Y. Times Co. (2d Cir. 1988). But the court's other point may be more apt here:
[T]he defamatory statements made by Reuven [also] have no relevance to the religious conflict. "[T]he law does not allow the relevant public controversy to be divorced from the allegedly defamatory statements and the context in which they were made." In this case, Reuven said the Plaintiffs violently attacked Rabbi Asor at a debate. The accusation of violence is not related to the alleged controversy of the theological debate. Reuven's statements did not pertain to religion or the views of Judaism and Christianity; instead, they were about the character and conduct of two individuals…. Thus, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs are not limited public figures and not required to prove that Reuven acted with actual malice.
The Court then concluded that Plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged defamation, as defined by Jews For Jesus, Inc. v. Rapp (Fla. 2008). (In an odd coincidence, a key Florida precedent here involved a different group of Messianic Jews, though in that case as false light defendants rather than libel plaintiffs.)
Plaintiffs allege facts that would plausibly establish falsity. Not only do both Eitan and Mordechai claim that the story Reuven told was false, but also Rabbi Asor who was the person allegedly attacked at the café stated that the story was false….
Plaintiffs have [also] plausibly alleged that Reuven was negligent in publishing defamatory content without first verifying the information. Reuven said he heard the story from a "third party who was intimately familiar with Rabbi Asor." … Only after this lawsuit was initiated and the video viewed over 7,500 times, did Reuven contact Rabbi Asor to verify the story. This shows that it was possible for Reuven to obtain more accurate information before publishing the video, but he chose not to do so….
Plaintiffs allege actual damages in the form of reputational harm, an increase in threats of potential violence, and severe emotional distress and personal physical injury…. Additionally, Plaintiffs allege enough to proceed on a claim of defamation per se[, which] would allow plaintiffs to recover for defamation without proof of actual damages … because the statements charged the Plaintiffs with an infamous crime and injured the Plaintiffs' profession as missionaries…. The video told viewers that Eitan and Vaknin committed assault and battery to a religious leader who did not agree with their beliefs. One can draw a reasonable inference that such a statement would likely have a significant impact on the profession of a missionary….
And the court rejected Reuven's "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" argument:
Reuven argues that to resolve the controversy at hand, the court must get entangled in religious questions because the judgment will involve a determination of the rights and roles of a rabbi…. [But t]he statements said in the video have nothing to do with religion; they were about a violent attack that did not happen. These issues have nothing to do with religious doctrine or conflict. By contrast, under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, a court will not rule on a case that requires it to define the "very core or what the religious body as a whole believes."
Congratulations to Richard P. Green (Lewis, Longman & Walker) and Todd V. McMurtry & J. Will Huber (Hemmer Defrank Wessels, PLLC), who represented the plaintiffs.