Tide Rolls Against the New York Times

JOOTB_FinalA University of Alabama basketball player may proceed with part of his lawsuit against the New York Times.  An Alabama based federal court found that the complaint set forth sufficient facts to support a finding of defamation.  But the court ruled that the Times did not print the article with actual malice. 

On the night of January 14, 2023, Alabama freshman basketball player Kai Spears and two friends went to "The Strip" in Tuscaloosa.  After meeting other friends, including Brandon Miller, a star on the basketball team, the group headed to a BBQ restaurant.  At about 1:40 a.m. Spears and a friend headed back to their dorm, while Miller drove back to the Strip.  At approximately 1:48, Spears learned via a Facetime message that Miller's car had been struck by bullets.

Later, on the day of January 15, police interviewed several members of the basketball team, including Spears.  Eventually, police charged two men in connection with the shooting.  In its investigation of the shooting, the Times learned that two people were struck in the crossfire, and the police noted an unidentified individual in Miller's car during the shooting.  A confidential source told the Times that Spears was the person in Miller's car.

After getting this tip, on March 15, a Times reporter asked Spears if he was scared when the shots were fired at Miller's car.  Spears responded, "no comment."  The reporter also asked Spears if he wanted to say anything about his whereabouts during the shooting.  Once again, Spears declined to comment.

Later that night, the Times ran a story that stated Spears was in Miller's car during the shooting.  After the story ran, University officials told the Times that Spears was not in the car during the shooting.  On March 20, Spears demanded a retraction, which the Times refused to run.  Spears then filed suit, at which time the Times ran the retraction.  

In a motion to dismiss, the Times argued that it was not liable for defamation because it said nothing defamatory about Spears.  It contended that identifying a person as a victim of a shooting does not lower that person's reputation. 

Spears contended, however, and the court agreed, that the Times did more than portray Spears as a victim.  In the court's view, the article could convey to a reasonable reader that Spears was complicit in the shooting.  Among other things, the article said that multiple members of the basketball team – including Spears – were "involved" in the shooting.  The article also indicated that the University has "kept quiet" the involvement of those players in the shooting.  And finally, the article placed Spears in the car that transported the gun used in the shooting.  In the court's view, all of this supported a finding that a reasonable reader could find a defamatory meaning.  For this reason, the court allowed Spears suit to continue.

It's too bad for the Times that the case wasn't filed in Ohio.  Ohio law recognizes the "innocent construction" rule.  Under that rule, if the allegedly defamatory article is subject to any innocent construction, the court must adopt the innocent construction. 

The court did, however, dismiss Spears' false light publicity claim.  Alabama law requires a party claiming false light to show that a publication portrayed them in a false, offensive light and that the defendant published the information knowing it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity. 

Spears couldn't sink that shot.  The court found that the Times investigated the matter and asked Spears directly about his involvement.  In response, Spears did not deny that he was present at the shooting.  The Times may have gotten it wrong, but it didn't do so intentionally or recklessly. 

The case will now proceed to discovery, and further proceedings.  Expect a full court press from both sides.

About The Author

Jack Greiner | Faruki Partner