Rachel Maddow Defeats Defamation Claim
Steven T. Lowe
On August 17th, 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling that MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow did not defame One America News Network (“OAN”) when she stated that OAN is “paid Russian propaganda.”
According to the Ninth Circuit, when Maddow remarked that OAN Network is “paid Russian propaganda,” it was an “obvious exaggeration” that did not amount to defamation and that the host’s on-air statement was protected free speech. Additionally, the court agreed with the District Court that the host’s statement was shielded by California’s anti-SLAPP law, which was enacted to protect against “strategic lawsuits against public participation” that target the exercise of free speech rights.
In 2019, OAN filed a defamation lawsuit against Maddow for her on-air statement calling OAN “paid Russian propaganda.” OAN launched the suit after her segment aired on July 22, 2019, in which she discussed an “undisputed” news article from The Daily Beast that reported that OAN employs an on-air reporter who is also on the payroll of Sputnik, the Kremlin-financed propaganda news organization, according to the opinion. According to the Ninth Circuit, The Daily Beast’s article is undisputed since an OAN reporter also wrote articles as a freelancer for Sputnik News, a Russian state-financed news organization.
In her segment, Maddow said that OAN employee, Kristen Rouz, was “also being paid by the Russian government to produce government-funded pro-Putin propaganda for a Russian government-funded propaganda outfit called Sputnik.”
In response to OAN’s lawsuit, Maddow and NBC filed an Anti-SLAPP motion in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, arguing that her statement was shielded by California’s Anti-SLAPP law. The District Court agreed.
According to the Court of Appeals, even though “MSNBC produces news, Maddow’s show, in particular, is more than just stating the news — Maddow is invited and encouraged to share her opinions with her viewers,” “In turn, Maddow’s audience anticipates her effort ‘to persuade others to [her] position by use of epithets, fiery rhetoric or hyperbole.’”
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion stated that Maddow’s tone while making the statements clearly indicate to a reasonable viewer that she wasn’t breaking news. Further, the court stated that Maddow’s “gleeful astonishment” with The Daily Beast’s breaking news was apparent throughout the entire segment.
“Therefore, the medium through which the contested statement was made supports Maddow’s argument that a reasonable viewer would not conclude the statement implies an assertion of fact,” the opinion states.
Herring is represented by Amnon Z. Siegel and Colin H. Rolfs of Miller Barondess LLP.
Maddow, Comcast, NBCUniversal, and MSNBC are represented by Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., Scott A. Edelman, Theane Evangelis, Nathaniel L. Bach, and Marissa B. Moshell of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
The case is Herring Networks Inc. v. Rachel Maddow et al., case number 20-55579, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
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