U.S. Supreme Court won't consider lowering bar to prove defamation

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The sun sets on the U.S. Supreme Court, in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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  • Megachurch sued over designation as hate group over LGBT views
  • Case challenged "actual malice" requirement for defamation claims

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a Florida megachurch's lawsuit challenging its designation as a hate group, sidestepping an opportunity to revisit the high bar that public figures face for proving defamation claims.

The court denied a petition by Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc, which says it lost out on the ability to collect charitable donations from Amazon.com Inc customers after the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed the church to be a hate group because of its anti-LGBT views.

The SPLC maintains a widely cited list of organizations that it considers to be hate groups. Amazon bars those groups from participating in a program in which customers can choose to donate a portion of their purchases.

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Coral Ridge had urged the Supreme Court to revisit its landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times Co v. Sullivan, which said public figures and entities must show that a defendant acted with "actual malice" in spreading false information to prevail on defamation claims.

The church said the standard was impossible to meet in many cases and that public figures, like other plaintiffs in defamation cases, should not be required to prove actual malice.

Coral Ridge's lawyers at the National Center for Life and Liberty did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did the SPLC and Amazon, which was a defendant in the lawsuit.

Amazon denied Coral Ridge's bid to be added to the charity program about five years ago. Coral Ridge has maintained that its religious belief that homosexuality is wrong does not make it a hate group.

The Sullivan standard has come under renewed scrutiny in recent years, including in a series of lawsuits conservative figures and organizations have filed against media outlets and advocacy groups.

Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a Republican, is widely expected to pursue a challenge to Sullivan after she lost a defamation case against the New York Times in Manhattan federal court earlier this year. Palin filed a notice of appeal in the case earlier this month.

On Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas in a brief dissent from the court's denial of Coral Ridge's petition said a fresh look at the actual malice standard was warranted.

"This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity," Thomas wrote.

The case is Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc v. Southern Poverty Law Center, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 21-802.

For Coral Ridge: David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty

For the SPLC: Chad Bowman of Ballard Spahr

For Amazon: Ambika Kumar of Davis Wright Tremaine

Read more:

Palin case one of several that could lower U.S. bar for defamation claims

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.