The Supreme Court has required more than mere falsity to establish actual malice: The falsity must be material. Minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist, the sting, of the libelous charge be justified. A statement is not considered false unless it would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.
After a pilot became angry and failed to complete training, an airline manager called the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) about the pilot's anger, the chance that he might be armed, and his impending termination. Respondent pilot sued petitioner airline company, alleging defamation. The airline company moved for summary judgment and later for a directed verdict, relying on the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which grants airlines and their employees immunity against civil liability for reporting suspicious behavior, 49 U. S. C. § 44941(a), except where such disclosure is “made with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading” or “made with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure,” § 44941(b). The trial court denied the motion and submitted the ATSA immunity question to the jury. The jury found for the pilot on the defamation claim. The State Supreme Court affirmed. It held that the trial court erred in submitting the immunity question to the jury but that the error was harmless. Laboring under the assumption that even true statements do not qualify for ATSA immunity if they are made recklessly, the State Supreme Court held that the airline company was not entitled to immunity because its statements to the TSA were made with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.
Did the State Supreme Court err in its decision not to entitle the airline company to immunity based on the alleged recklessness of the statements it made to the Transportation Security Administration?
The U.S. Supreme Court determined that ATSA immunity may not be denied under 49 U.S.C.S. § 44941(b) without a determination that a disclosure was materially false because Congress patterned the exception to ATSA immunity after the actual malice standard, and the Supreme Court had long held that actual malice required material falsity. The airline was entitled to ATSA immunity as to the defamation claim as a matter of law. The statement that the pilot "was a federal flight deck officer who may be armed" was literally true. Regarding the statement that the pilot "was terminated today," no reasonable TSA officer would care whether an angry, potentially armed airline employee had just been fired or merely knew he was about to be fired. The statements regarding the pilot's mental instability accurately conveyed the gist of the situation. Any falsehood in the disclosure would not have affected a reasonable security officer's assessment of the supposed threat.