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Jankovic v. Int'l Crisis Grp. - 422 U.S. App. D.C. 259, 822 F.3d 576 (2016)

Rule:

As a limited-purpose public figure, the plaintiff can prevail on his defamation claim only if he proves that the statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. A defendant has acted recklessly if the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication or acted with a high degree of awareness of probable falsity. The plaintiff can prove the defendant's subjective state of mind through the cumulation of circumstantial evidence, as well as through direct evidence. But it is not enough to show that defendant should have known better; instead, the plaintiff must offer evidence that the defendant in fact harbored subjective doubt. The plaintiff can make this showing, for example, by offering evidence that it was highly probable that the story was (1) fabricated; (2) so inherently improbable that only a reckless person would have put it in circulation; or (3) based wholly on an unverified anonymous telephone call or some other source that defendant had obvious reason to doubt. In view of the important values enshrined in the First Amendment, the Constitution further protects publishers by requiring that plaintiffs prove actual malice by clear and convincing evidence.

Facts:

Plaintiff Milan Jankovic, also known as Philip Zepter, filed a lawsuit in federal district court against defendant International Crisis Group ("ICG") for defamation. ICG published various reports as part of its mission to influence policymakers and to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts. The suit was based on a statement in one of ICG's reports that linked Zepter to the Slobodan Milosevic regime. In prior litigation in the case, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit twice reversed the dismissal of the complaint and remanded the case. In the first appeal, the appellate court held that one statement in an ICG report was capable of defamatory meaning, and, in the second appeal, the court rejected ICG's defenses that the statement was merely an opinion or a fair report or comment on a government document. On the second remand, the district court granted ICG summary judgment on grounds that Zepter was a limited-purpose public figure and that he failed to proffer evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that ICG published the defamatory statement with actual malice. Zepter appealed.

Issue:

(1) Was Zepter a limited-purpose public figure? (2) Did ICG publish the allegedly defamatory statement with actual malice?

Answer:

(1) Yes; (2) No.

Conclusion:

The court of appeals affirmed the district court's judgment. The court held that Zepter was a limited-purpose public figure with respect to the public controversy surrounding political and economic reform in Serbia and integration of Serbia into international institutions during the post-Milosevic era. According to the court, the evidence showed that Zepter had voluntarily thrust himself into ensuring that Serbia underwent reforms in the post-Milosevic era. His public actions invited press scrutiny in view of the public discussion regarding the impact that businessmen of his stature would have on reform during and after the Djindjic regime. As a limited-purpose public figure, Zepter had the burden of proving that ICG made the statement in question with actual malice—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. The court ruled that despite weaknesses in some sources on which ICG relied in its reporting, Zepter failed to establish that ICG actually possessed subjective doubt about the statement.

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