US Supreme Court turns away challenge to media defamation protections

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear a bid by a prominent former West Virginia mining company executive to make it easier for public figures to sue for defamation in a case that challenged longstanding protections for news organizations.

The justices turned away former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship’s appeal of a lower court’s decision throwing out his defamation lawsuit against media outlets including Fox News and MSNBC for characterizing him as a “felon” during his unsuccessful 2018 run for the U.S. Senate.

Blankenship was convicted by a jury in 2015 of a federal conspiracy offense that is classified as a misdemeanor, not a felony, after a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners.

He had asked the Supreme Court to overturn its unanimous 1964 ruling in a landmark case called New York Times v. Sullivan that set stringent limits on defamation claims by public officials under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and the press.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas in a written opinion agreed with Tuesday’s decision to turn away Blankenship’s appeal. However, Thomas reiterated his view that the court should reconsider the 1964 precedent in an “appropriate case.”

The Supreme Court in that ruling and subsequent decisions set a standard that in order to win a libel suit, a public figure must demonstrate that the offending statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether it was false. The court in these rulings aimed to preserve robust public debate and prevent the self-censorship of truthful information out of a fear of expensive lawsuits.

Thomas and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch have in recent years raised doubts about the defamation precedents, pointing to a rapidly changing media environment increasingly rife with disinformation.

A jury found Blankenship guilty of a single misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards but did not convict him on related felony charges. Blankenship, who also was fined $250,000, was released from prison in 2017 after serving a one-year sentence.

Blankenship in 2018 sought the Republican nomination in a U.S. Senate race, hoping to unseat Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, but lost his party’s primary.

He filed a federal lawsuit in 2019 against numerous news organizations and individual journalists, also including the Washington Post and Boston Globe newspapers, accusing them of defamation for referring to him as a “felon” during coverage of his candidacy. The coverage contributed to his primary defeat, Blankenship claimed in his lawsuit.

A federal judge ruled against Blankenship in 2022, finding that the defendants did not make the statements with actual malice. The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against Blankenship in February.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Blankenship’s lawyers said that the media is now dominated by a few giant corporations that seek profits ahead of public service.

A fire caused by a methane or natural gas leak likely set off the April 2010 blast at Massey’s now-closed Upper Big Branch mine, located about 40 miles (65 km) south of Charleston, West Virginia, according to federal investigators.

The Supreme Court previously rejected Blankenship’s appeals seeking to overturn his conviction.

Thomas in 2019 took aim at the 1964 defamation precedent in an opinion he wrote when the court refused to consider reviving a defamation lawsuit against Bill Cosby. Thomas said the precedent was not rooted in the Constitution and that it and the subsequent rulings extending it “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.” Thomas added that defamation law was historically a matter for the states, and should remain that way.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)