By Steven J.J. Weisman
BOSTON — The wheels of justice don’t turn particularly fast. It has been two years since the Boston Marathon bombing and a year since Saudi Arabian student Abdulrahman Alharbi sued talk show host Glenn Beck for defamation. At the time of the bombing and for some time thereafter, Beck was convinced that there was a conspiracy that extended beyond the Tsarnaev brothers that included another person who Beck publicly identified as an al Qaeda “control agent” and the “money man” behind the bombings, although the lack of sophistication involved in the crime did not appear to require any significant funding to bring about this attack. Abdulrahman Alharbi , the man identified by Beck as the conspirator not only was present at the bombings, but actually was among those injured by the blasts.
Following the bombings, Alharbi was interviewed extensively by federal authorities. His home was searched, after which it was determined by federal law enforcement that Alharbi had no connection to the terrorist attack.
Beck continued to argue over the airwaves that Alharbi was involved in the crime and that the federal government was covering up his involvement. You can well imagine the harm to Alharbi’s reputation to be publicly labeled an al Qaeda terrorist. So it should come as no surprise that a year after the bombings, Alharbi filed a civil lawsuit in the Federal District Court of Massachusetts against Glenn Beck personally and other corporate entities involved in what Alharbi alleges was defamation of his character.
In order to prove defamation, a plaintiff must show that false statements were made about him and that those statements caused harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. It is now clear that indeed false statements were made by Beck about Alharbi and it should not be difficult for Alahrbi to prove that his reputation was harmed by those statements, however, the case does not end there.
In the landmark Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan and in a series of cases since then including Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, the Supreme Court ruled that when it comes to public officials and public figures, there is an additional burden of proof for a plaintiff alleging he has been defamed by the media. In those cases, a plaintiff will not be successful in a defamation case unless he can prove in addition to the statements being false and that he was harmed by the statements that the statements were made with malice either knowing the statements were false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. This higher standard makes it much more difficult for a public official or public figure to win a defamation lawsuit. Thus Beck’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit by arguing that Alharbi was a public figure and Alharbi had not alleged that Beck had made his statements with malice. In December the judge denied Beck’s motion.
Now in a significant ruling, Judge Patti B. Saris has allowed Alharbi to amend his defamation lawsuit by adding a count for unjust enrichment. In allowing this count to be added to the complaint, Judge Saris has significantly upped the amount of a possible judgment. In her decision, Judge Saris stated that “Massachusetts courts have recognized that misuse of confidential information may lead to unjust enrichment.” Judge Saris also cited the defamation and unjust enrichment lawsuit brought by former Minnesota Governor and former Navy SEAL, Jesse Ventura against Chris Kyle, the author of the book and the subject of the movie “American Sniper.” In the book and in a later interview with Bill O’Reilly about the book, Kyle described an alleged bar fight involving Ventura during a wake for one of Kyle’s comrades killed in action. In his O’Reilly interview account of the fight, Kyle quoted Ventura as saying the Seals deserved to “lose a few” due to their involvement in an unjust war in Iraq. In Kyle’s version of the altercation, Ventura ended up “on the floor” with a black eye. The case went to trial after the death of Kyle and ended with a largely reported verdict in favor of Ventura, the plaintiff. What was less reported was the jury’s verdict consisted of an award of $500,000 for defamation and $1.35 million for unjust enrichment.
The Beck case is still a long way from trial. Presently the case is in the discovery phase. Beck’s attorneys are seeking information from the Boston Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police and 10 federal agencies including the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. These state and federal agencies opposed providing the documents and records sought by Beck’s attorney, arguing that to provide these documents would harm the confidentiality needs of law enforcement as well as the privacy rights of affected individuals. However, by agreement of the lawyers for both parties, any information deemed confidential will be kept secret and the records destroyed within 60 days of the final resolution of the case.
Ultimately, however the case is finally resolved, it should be a lesson to us all to be confident of the truth of the facts that we report and cognizant of the serious repercussions to the people involved. The First Amendment grants us great power. It also demands great responsibility.
Steven J.J. Weisman is a practicing attorney, legal editor for TALKERS magazine, a professor of Media Law at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts and publisher of the website www.scamicide.com. He can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Steven J.J. Weisman is available as a guest to discuss legal matters and the subjects of identity theft and scams.