Keeping Tabs on the Ninth Circuit
August 18, 2022 - This Week at the Ninth

This Week at the Ninth: Danish Cults and Defamation

digital news blog

This week, the Ninth Circuit addresses the First Amendment “limited-purpose public figure” doctrine in the context of a charitable organization’s fundraising activities. 

The Court holds that charitable organizations that engage in public fundraising activities must prove “actual malice” when pursuing defamation claims related to their use of funds.

Panel: Judges S. R. Thomas, Gould, and Bea, with Judge S. R. Thomas writing the opinion.

Key Highlight: “By actively seeking attention from the press, promoting themselves through social media, employing public relations staff, and soliciting donations and grants, Planet Aid and Thomsen assumed a risk of public scrutiny. By regularly providing statements to the press, Planet Aid and Thomsen both demonstrate a greater access to channels of effective communication than private individuals, and therefore an ability to counteract false statements through self-help.”

Background: Plaintiff Planet Aid is a charitable organization dedicated to ameliorating poverty worldwide. It publicizes itself through press releases, social media, and a variety of other outlets. It had previously been the subject of news reports about its possible connection to a Danish cult and its ties to an entity accused of fraud. Planet Aid was also affiliated with DAPP Malawi, an organization that had itself been linked to these controversies. 

The Center for Investigative Reporting (the “Reporters”) published a series of articles on Planet Aid and DAPP Malawi’s purported misuse of USDA funds. In response, Planet Aid and Lisbeth Thomsen, DAP Malawi’s director and spokesperson, filed a defamation suit. The Reporters invoked California’s anti-SLAPP statute and filed a motion to strike the plaintiffs’ claim. The district court granted the motion, concluding that while some of the Reporters’ statements had been false, the plaintiffs could not show that the Reporters acted with “actual malice.”

Result: The Ninth Circuit affirmed. As the Court explained, the “actual malice” requirement—under which an allegedly defamatory statement must be made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”—applies only where the defendant is at least a “limited-purpose public figure.” And, the Court continued, under the Ninth Circuit’s three-part test for determining whether a plaintiff is a limited-purpose public figure, the Court considered: (1) whether there was an existing public controversy; (2) whether the defamatory statements related to that controversy; and (3) “whether the plaintiff voluntarily injected itself into the controversy for the purpose of influencing the controversy’s ultimate resolution.” 

The Court held these requirements were satisfied. As to the first factor, the Court emphasized that there had long been public scrutiny of both Planet Aid and DAPP Malawi’s use of charitable funds. As to the third factor (which the Court addressed second), the Court noted that the “voluntariness requirement has been interpreted broadly” and can be “satisfied by a showing that a person or entity engaged in a course of conduct that foreseeably put themselves at risk of public scrutiny.” Here, both Planet Aid and Thompsen had regularly spoken publicly and solicited donations, thus inviting public scrutiny. And as to the second factor, the Court also concluded that the Reporters’ articles on misuse of funds related to the existing controversies questioning the plaintiffs’ integrity. 

Finally, the Court succinctly affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the actual malice standard, explaining that the district court “undertook a thorough and detailed analysis of the actual malice assertions,” and “[t]he record supports [its] conclusion.”