Donald Trump has once again prevailed in a defamation lawsuit, and even though he’s continually pushed for laws that would make it easier for plaintiffs to sue, he’ll be thankful that a federal judge has recognized the protections afforded by the First Amendment.
Stormy Daniels was the plaintiff in this one.
She not only sued Trump to invalidate a hush agreement over an alleged affair, but in the midst of the controversy, her attorney Michael Avenatti sheparded a claim over one of Trump’s tweets.
Last April, Avenatti released a sketch of a man who allegedly threatened Daniels into remaining silent back in 2011. Trump tweeted, “A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!”
In response, Trump moved to have the complaint stricken under Texas’ anti-SLAPP statute, which provides special protection against frivolous litigation usurping one’s free speech activity. Charles Harder, his attorney, argued that the statement at issue represented protected opinion and that Daniels hadn’t sufficiently alleged damages nor stated facts to show Trump acted with actual malice.
U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero concludes that Daniels has failed to establish a prima facie case for defamation.
“The Court agrees with Mr. Trump’s argument because the tweet in question constitutes ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States,” states the opinion. “The First Amendment protects this type of rhetorical statement.”
The judge continues by defining “rhetorical hyperbole” as “extravagant exaggeration employed for rhetorical effect” and characterizes Trump’s tweet as displaying “an incredulous tone, suggesting that the content of his tweet was not meant to be understood as a literal statement about Plaintiff. Instead, Mr. Trump sought to use language to challenge Plaintiff’s account of her affair and the threat that she purportedly received in 2011. As the United States Supreme Court has held, a published statement that is ‘pointed, exaggerated, and heavily laden with emotional rhetoric and moral outrage’ cannot constitute a defamatory statement.”
Otero adds that Trump made a “one-off rhetorical comment, not a sustained attack on the veracity of Plaintiff’s claims” and that this distinguishes this suit from other cases where courts have seen enough to deem defamation from a public statement. The judge adds that Daniels’ assumption that Trump knew of the 2011 threat doesn’t establish facts adding up that he did, in fact, know about the threat. The judge ends up agreeing with Trump that Daniels hasn’t shown actual malice nor adequately pled damages.
Daniels won’t get the opportunity to amend her complaint to cure deficiencies, and what’s more under Texas’ anti-SLAPP statute, she now has to pay Trump’s legal costs — perhaps a rubbing of salt in the wound to those who contributed to Daniels’ legal defense fund. However, she does have a right to pursue an appeal.
UPDATE: In a tweet following publication of this story, Avenatti attempted to frame the ruling as “limited” and said it wouldn’t affect her other claims looking to invalidate the contract. (There, Trump offered her a covenant not to sue and is arguing a court no longer has jurisdiction to entertain that controversy.) Avenatti added, “We will appeal the dismissal of the defamation cause of action and are confident in a reversal.”
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