Wednesday, February 27, 2013

NY App. Court Affirms Dismissal of Journo's Libel Suit

An issue of Harper's from 1905
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In Farber v. Jefferys et al (2013 NY Slip Op. 01044), the N.Y. Appellate Division last week upheld Supreme Court Judge Louis B. York's dismissal of a defamation claim by journalist/author Celia Farber against HIV/AIDS researcher Richard Jefferys.

Beginning in the 1980s, Farber covered the AIDS epidemic for Spin Magazine and subsequently wrote several books on the subject. A lightning rod, she stirred controversy in a 2006 Harper's Magazine article that attacked AIDS activists, drawing rebukes from activists and researchers of the disease.

Semmelweis Society International honored her for the Harper's piece, prompting Jefferys to email the organization, alleging that Farber was a liar and had misrepresented published papers on the topic and doctored quotes, according to the plaintiff's Complaint. Judge York granted a summary judgment motion dismissing her complaint.

The appellate panel agreed with Judge York that Farber had failed to meet the elevated burden of proof of actual malice to sustain her defamation claim because, regarding the HIV/AIDS controversy, she was a limited public figure who "voluntarily injected herself into the controversial debate on whether HIV causes AIDS with a view toward influencing the debate." The court found that she failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants knew or should have known the alleged offending statements were false or made with gross irresponsibility.

Additionally, the court ruled that Jefferys purportedly calling Farber a liar was not actionable as defamation, but rather, constituted opinion. "[E]ven if plaintiff were correct about her work," the court wrote, "she can point to no evidence that would establish actual malice or gross irresponsibility."

Tip of the hat to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press ( for flagging this decision. When it comes to journalists, actual malice is a better shield than a sword.
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