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Most Libel Claims by The Satanic Temple Against Newsweek Dismissed, But Not Claim Over Sexual Abuse Allegations
From Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil's opinion yesterday in The Satanic Temple, Inc. v. Newsweek Magazine LLC, where the Temple sued Newsweek over allegedly libelous statements in an article:
1) Financial Fraud
Plaintiff argues that the article was defamatory in implying that Plaintiff engaged in a pattern of embezzlement, which it concealed by ousting anyone who investigated a claim of wrongdoing. Such fraudulent activity was allegedly implied through the following statements:
- "In 2018, [The Satanic Temple] sued Twitter for temporarily suspending the account of co-founder Lucien Greaves."
- "Dozens of people" have been "kicked out for asking for financial records from this alleged-non-profit organization."
- A former member was "sidelined after asking Greaves why 'he was going to sue Twitter like it was a personal vendetta, but then using [The Satanic Temple's] money to do so.'"
Plaintiff contends that these statements suffer from minor inaccuracies. For example, Plaintiff alleges that Twitter did not "temporarily" suspend Greaves, but rather permanently banned him. This inaccuracy allegedly defamed Plaintiff by implication because a permanent ban would justify legal action to a reasonable reader, while a temporary suspension would not. The Complaint also alleges that a reasonable reader would assume that the suit against Twitter cost Plaintiff a lot of money, when in reality the matter was handled pro bono and no money was expended. Plaintiff contends that this error and omission, when combined with the statement that Plaintiff has booted inquiring members, suggest that The Satanic Temple "is nothing more than a veneer of a charitable organization, whose purpose is in reality to enrich its directors with donations solicited through public fraud."
This an unjustifiable leap. Nothing about the Article's reference to Twitter even remotely suggests that Plaintiff has been engaging in fraudulent financial dealings. The same might not be said about the statement that dozens of people had been kicked out of The Satanic Temple for asking for financial records, which does raise some red flags. But Plaintiff does not allege that the latter statement is false, or that any relevant information has been omitted. There is nothing defamatory about accurately reporting signs of smoke even if there is no proof of fire.
2) Sexual Misconduct and Abuse
Plaintiff next alleges that the Article falsely accuses the organization of sexual deviancy and sexual abuse with the following statements:
- "While digging up facts for their defense, they've [the Johnson defendants] run into other aggrieved Satanists around the country who have a litany of complaints about the organization, including allegations of sexually deviant gatherings that, according to one … memo, allow for 'orgies, BDSM, fetish balls … ritual flogging, live ritual sex, burlesque show."
- Referencing an allegation that The Satanic Temple approved of "official orgies" in a memorandum it circulated to its members.
- A former member, in explaining why he left The Satanic Temple, referenced "[a]ccounts of sexual abuse being covered up in ways that were more than anecdotal."
The statements can be placed in two subgroups: one concerning sexual deviancy and the other concerning sexual abuse. The claims regarding sexual deviancy are not defamatory. They reference complaints or allegations of sexual activities discussed in a memorandum that Plaintiff supposedly circulated to its members. Plaintiff does not dispute that this memorandum exists. In fact, the Article quotes the Co-Founder of The Satanic Temple as stating that no sexual activities were compulsory and that "[t]he guidelines are merely meant to set parameters in which if these things are incorporated into any TST [The Satanic Temple] events, they are done in a way that is safe, sane, and consensual, and that nobody feels uncomfortable or coerced." Whatever a reasonable reader might assume about an organization that circulates a memorandum of this sort, Plaintiff fails to plausibly allege anything false or defamatory about the balanced reporting on this issue.
Reports of sexual abuse are different. Plaintiff flatly denies that any sexual abuse has occurred or that any abuse has been covered up. But the Article did not mention this denial, to the extent it had been expressed before publication, nor did the Article explain whether any comment on the allegation of abuse had been solicited. (The denial referenced above, which states that no sexual activities were compulsory, was clearly in reference to a separate allegation that appeared several paragraphs below in the Article.) Instead, the Article merely recounts the serious accusation and then moves to the next topic. Rather than try to justify this allegedly defamatory statement, Defendants bury it in their brief, seemingly hoping it will go unnoticed. But the Court cannot overlook this statement, which is plausibly defamatory and which must survive the motion to dismiss.
3) Misrepresenting Legal proceeding
Plaintiff alleges that the Article defamed it by misrepresenting the nature of the Johnson Case to make it appear that the organization engaged in frivolous litigation. In support of this claim, Plaintiff points to the following statements:
- "Orgies, Harassment, Fraud: Satanic Temple Rocked by Accusations, Lawsuit."
- "In a withering 14-page judgment, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones dismissed the lawsuit on Feb. 26, 2021, saying the plaintiffs got their facts wrong on the actual domain name of the Facebook page and that other claims made by [The Satanic Temple] were 'implausible.'"
- "'It was tossed out because they [The Satanic Temple] claim to be a religion and you are allowed to criticize religions,' Johnson said. 'They like to say they are a business when it comes to competitor organizations forming or when someone is using their intellectual property. Otherwise, they claim to be a religion.'"
Plaintiff chides this reporting for minor errors such as the fact that the Johnson opinion never referred to the claims brought by The Satanic Temple as "implausible," despite the use of quotation marks in the Article. Plaintiff claims this error, coupled with other mischaracterizations (such as describing the opinion as "withering"), was defamatory in that it implies that The Satanic Temple spends its money on frivolous lawsuits, which might frustrate future donations.
This is a stretch. The Article was reporting on an opinion in federal court dismissing the defamation claims brought by The Satanic Temple. And while nobody likes losing, or having that loss detailed in a popular publication, there was nothing materially misleading about the reporting of the loss. Indeed, the standard for dismissal of a claim under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is does it plausibly allege facts that give rise to a claim. To the extent that a scrupulous donor infers from the reporting that Plaintiff wastes its money on frivolous suits, there is nothing to suggest that Defendants either "intended or endorsed the inference." Finally, Plaintiff asserts that the title of the Article (i.e., the first statement) is defamatory because it falsely suggests that The Satanic Temple had been sued, when, in reality, it was the one that brought the suit. But any reasonable reader who got past the headline would quickly learn what happened, to the extent there was any confusion at the outset.
4) Fraudulent Lawsuit
Plaintiff claims that the Article was defamatory in its implication that the organization defrauds the courts. Specifically, Plaintiff points to a parenthetical included in the Article, which followed a discussion of Plaintiff's religious reproductive rights litigation against Texas, in which Plaintiff argued that it practices abortion as a religious ritual. The parenthetical stated: "(It's not clear whether [The Satanic Temple] actually practices abortion as a religious ritual; the claim may be a legal tactic or political theatre.)" According to Plaintiff, the statement suggested that The Satanic Temple defrauds courts by filings lawsuits predicated on misrepresenting its religious practices.
The relevant parenthetical constitutes a non-actionable opinion. This much is shown by the use of parenthesis, which signals that the statement is distinct from the factual reporting that preceded it. The speculative nature of the statement is also made evident by the use of the phrases "[i]t's not clear" and "may be." In sum, this parenthetical presents a clear expression of opinion rather than fact and a claim predicated on it must be dismissed.
5) Defrauding the Public
Plaintiff further alleges that the Article defamed it by implying through the following statements that Plaintiff defrauds the public about its organizational purpose:
- "[A former member] soon left the group, then was leaked material about 'leaders posing happily with major alt-right media figures,' he wrote."
- "The Satanic Temple recently made some significant structural changes, apparently in an effort to appear more like a mainstream church."
Plaintiff alleges that the first statement "is part of a repeated and provably-false assertion that [The Satanic Temple] is secretly affiliated with the alt-right, which is a provably-false charge that [The Satanic Temple] defrauds the public about its organization purposes." Plaintiff similarly alleges that the second statement is false, and that it is defamatory because "it charges [The Satanic Temple] with fraud to the public about its organizational function and purposes."
The statements are not defamatory. It is a long leap to claim that these two statements imply that Plaintiff was defrauding the public about its organizational purposes. It is a longer leap to suggest that this implication was intended and endorsed by the author of the Article. If Plaintiff did not want to be associated with the alt-right, the best course of action would be to avoid posing with alt-right media figures. The reporting of such an interaction (the occurrence of which Plaintiff does not dispute) is not defamatory merely because it will disappoint some of Plaintiff's donors. And while the second statement is prefaced with a supposed fact, regarding some significant structural changes, Plaintiff takes issue with only the second part of statement, which is clearly a nonactionable opinion (as indicated by use of the word "apparently"). Once again, opinions are not defamatory.
6) Harassing Dissenters
Plaintiff contends that the following statements create the defamatory implication that The Satanic Temple harassed dissenters by bringing the Johnson lawsuit:
- "Bit by bit, items critical of [The Satanic Temple] showed up on its Seattle chapter's Facebook page. Then in March 2020, according to the lawsuit, the defendants went rogue."
- "Meanwhile some members wondered why an organization like [The Satanic Temple] would go after four Seattleites with very modest means while it had bigger fish to fry elsewhere."
- The Johnson defendants have "spent $80,000 defending themselves in court this past year."
- "The defendants say the case has devolved into a meritless S.LA.P.P. (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit as a way to bankrupt them for speaking out."
- One of the Johnson defendants "has since declared bankruptcy."
There is nothing impliedly defamatory about these statements. The Article was reporting on a lawsuit and lawsuits cost money. That the Johnson defendants had spent money defending themselves is not demonstrably false and implies nothing untoward. It is possible that a reader might connect these statements to the Article's description of why the defamation claims were tossed and conclude that The Satanic Temple brought the lawsuit solely to harass dissenters. But Plaintiff fails to plead that Defendants intended or endorsed that implication, which is fatal to its claim.
Other statements in this category present a closer call. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the following statements suggest that it harasses dissenters as a general practice:
- "'After leaving, it was basically Scientology-lite,' [a former member] told Newsweek in an email. 'People were told not to talk to us. Members were trying to break up my relationship with my boyfriend. Several people were legally threatened. I know quite a few people who have refused to speak out at all because they fear legal action from [The Satanic Temple].'"
- "Once she [a former member] became known as a dissenter, she said, members of [The Satanic Temple's] national council threatened to out her to the Marine Corps, her employer, despite the Corps already being aware of [her] religious activities." Compl. (emphasis added).
Plaintiff argues that it never harassed dissenters in the described manner and that the statements are defamatory because they "invite[ ] the public to conclude that [The Satanic Temple] has a practice of harassing dissenters, which diminishes the likelihood of the public joining [The Satanic Temple] or donating to [The Satanic Temple]."
Defendants counter that calling Plaintiff "Scientology-lite" and reporting that dissenters claim they were subjected to Scientology-like threats of being sued or "outed" does not give rise to the type of reputational harm required for a defamation claim…. [But] while the inference that can be drawn from the above statements is clear—Plaintiff harasses dissenters—it is not evident that Defendants have endorsed that inference.
Critically, these are not accusations or factual statements by Newsweek or Duin. They, as reflected with the bolded portions of the statements, are a recounting of what was previously said to Duin. It is true that "merely reporting what another has said … does not insulate a reporter from liability for defamation." However, a reporter can be insulated from liability depending on how the information is presented. Specifically, courts have held that a statement contained in an article is not defamatory if the article attributes the statement to a source; makes clear that it is a mere allegation; and prints a denial of the allegation, to the extent one has been made.
Here, the Article expressly attributes the accusations to former members of The Satanic Temple. And, rather than adopt the accusations as its own, the Article supplied the other side of the story: "'We get this litany of senseless disparaging claims against us that says we're a religious group acting in a nefarious manner,' [Greaves] said. 'They call us a cult, which doesn't stand up to scrutiny either…. I don't think there is anything incredibly cult-like in what we do.'" This sort of balanced reporting (which is in contrast to the treatment of the sexual abuse accusation discussed above) precludes a finding of defamation.
7) Other "Terrible" Acts
Finally, Plaintiff identifies three statements in the Article that allegedly create the defamatory implication that The Satanic Temple has committed unidentified "terrible" acts worthy of legal action:
- "Of all the defendants, Johnson is the one who has spent the most time digging into [The Satanic Temple's] background. 'Every time I think I've hit the bottom, there's another terrible thing comes out,' he said. 'People send us things we can't talk about because we can't substantiate them.'"
- "'I [Johnson] can't really get press coverage, get attorneys general to audit [The Satanic Temple] but what I can do is work. I can find everything public that I possibly can; tie it together as best as I can and hope that someone looks at it and picks it up.'"
- "They [the Johnson defendants] continue to post their findings about [The Satanic Temple] on a website. 'We would appreciate any support you can offer,' they write in a concluding statement, 'as we struggle to survive this pursuit of justice in the worst year of our lives so far.'"
Plaintiff argues that these statements are defamatory because they invite the reader to use its imagination to think what other terrible things it has done and because they imply that The Satanic Temple has done something to justify an audit by a State attorney general. This proves too much. The first two statements clearly note the things that Johnson cannot do: he cannot substantiate the "terrible" things he has heard; he cannot get press coverage; and he cannot get attorneys general to audit The Satanic Temple. This all serves to undermine any suggestion that something "terrible" has happened. Finally, indicating that the Johnson defendants are "sruggl[ing]" does not reasonably imply undisclosed "terrible" acts.