FAN 111.1 (First Amendment News) Court Denies Review in Defamation Case — Larry Tribe Counsel for Petitioner

Earlier today the Supreme Court denied review in Scholz v. Delp in which Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe was counsel for the Petitioner. The issue in the case was whether the First Amendment creates a categorical presumption that statements about a person’s motive in committing suicide are matters of “opinion” rather than “fact” and thus cannot be the basis of a defamation action.

Professor Laurence Tribe

Professor Laurence Tribe

Professor Tribe filed a cert. petition on behalf of Petitioner Donald Thomas Scholz. Professor Tribe began his brief by stating:

“This case presents the fundamental question of whether the First Amendment creates a categorical presumption exempting from defamation actions statements about a person’s motive in committing suicide, on the basis that such statements are generally matters of ‘opinion’ rather than ‘fact.’ The Massachusetts SJC held that the First Amendment does create such a presumption and that, as a result, Petitioner Scholz – the producer, primary songwriter, and lead musician in the rock band ‘Boston’ – cannot proceed with his defamation actions against the Boston Herald, two of its reporters, and its principal source, for falsely accusing Mr. Scholz of causing the suicide of the band’s lead singer, Brad Delp.”

“The SJC deepened a significant conflict among many state and federal courts as to whether statements about the cause of a particular suicide, and about motive more generally, are categorically exempt from claims of defamation. It also departed from this Court’s core holding in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990), that there is no need to create a special First Amendment privilege for statements that can be labeled opinion. This Court emphasized that creating such a privilege would tilt the balance too far against the important interest in protecting personal reputation against unjustified invasion. And it explained that existing First Amendment limits on defamation actions suffice to protect freedom of expression.”

 The the three arguments advanced by Professor Tribe in his cert. petition were:

  1. “This Court Should Grant Review to Resolve a Deep and Abiding Conflict among Courts as to Whether Statements about Motive Generally, and about Motive for Suicide Specifically, are Categorically Exempt From Defamation Claims”
  2. “This Court Should Grant Review Because the SJC’s Ruling Conflicts with Malkovich by Creating a First Amendment Exemption from DefamationActions Not PreviouslyRecognized by this Court,” and
  3. “This Court Should Grant Review Because of the Importance of the Question Presented.”

Professor Tribe closed his brief by stating:

“These sensational stories also can cause severe harm to those falsely accused of causing the suicide. In instances, like the one in this case, where a friend or family member is blamed for a suicide, the reputational and emotional toll exacted from the person wrongly accused can be particularly significant. “Suicide exacts a heavy toll on those left behind as well. Loved ones, friends, classmates, neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, and colleagues all feel the effect of these deaths.” This heavy toll is dramatically compounded when friends or loved ones are falsely blamed for contributing to the suicide. But the SJC’s decision below shields from suit those who propound such false stories no matter how reckless they are in doing so. And, to compound the harm further, the SJC, far from resting its judgment on Massachusetts law, wrongly blames the First Amendment for that travesty of justice.”

Today the Court declined to hear the case.

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