Glenn Beck does not impress me as a free speech hero. After all, he brought a World Intellectual Property Organization suit against a satirical website that annoyed him and got thoroughly curb-stomped by Marc Randazza, as one does.
Now he's in federal court, defending his right to accuse random people of terrorism when the government has tragically failed to perceive their clear dangerousness and terroristyness.
The case involves Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi, a young Saudi student injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. Law enforcement rather quickly decided that he was a witness, not a suspect. But Glenn Beck knows better than professional law enforcement — which after all is run by an oligarhy — and proceeded to tell his viewers that Alharbi was surely involved in the bombing as a financial backer. Why would the authorities lie and conceal Alharbi's wrongdoing? Do you even have to ask? Because Obama. Haven't you ever watched Glenn Beck?
Alharbi sued Beck for defamation in federal court in Boston. The complaint is here. Now Beck has moved to dismiss, asserting that (1) Alharbi should be treated as a public figure, (2) if Alharbi is a public figure he has to prove that Beck acted with "actual malice," and (3) Alharbi hasn't alleged any facts that support actual malice. The motion is well-briefed on both sides: here are the motion to dismiss, Alharbi's opposition, and Beck's reply.
In defamation, deciding the applicable standard often effectively decides the case. The "actual malice" standard applicable to defamation suits by public figures is very difficult to meet. If the court treats Alharbi as a public figure, it will be extremely difficult for him to prove that Beck either knew that what he was saying was wrong or deliberately ignored signs that he was wrong.
The case likely turns, then, on whether Alharbi should be treated as a public figure. He might be one voluntarily, on the theory that he made himself a public figure through some voluntary contact with the press. That's the theory on which Richard Jewell and Stephen Hatfill lost. Alternatively, he might be an "involuntary public figure" — a fairly narrow category applied to people thrust against their will into a spectacle.
Beck's argument is that Alharbi spoke to the press, becoming a voluntary public figure, and that he was at the center of a dramatic event and an investigation, making him an involuntary public figure. Alharbi argues that Beck is bootstrapping, and that Beck's argument suggests that Beck can unilaterally transform a target into a public figure and then defame him with near-impunity. Beck's argument is more than a little unsettling and unflattering:
In addition, Plaintiff embarked on a course of conduct that was reasonably likely to result in public attention and comment on his background, activities, and immigration status. By behaving suspiciously at the Marathon finishing line when the bombs detonated (Ex. 2, DEF 0046), thereby causing his detention and a background check by law enforcement, Plaintiff became the focal point of an ongoing exchange between executive and legislative branch officials at the highest levels of the United States government regarding the efficacy of its counterterrorism program.
That's particularly disturbing because, as Alharbi points out, most of it is apparently bullshit.
I think Alharbi has, and should have, the edge on this motion. Even though federal courts increasingly require plaintiffs to plead specific facts to support their accusations, in this case the fact that Beck continued to accuse Alharbi after law enforcement cleared him is likely enough to permit an inference of actual malice, which is enough to defeat a motion to dismiss. Whether Alharbi made himself a public figure by talking to the press is best resolved through a summary judgment motion after discovery into the nature and extent of his press contacts.
Note that Alharbi attracted Beck's rather wandering and disturbed attention because someone in federal law enforcement leaked to the media that he was being investigated. If the "involuntary public figure" standard is applied to Alharbi, it effectively means that law enforcement can make you into a public figure through leaking information about you being investigated, even if you've done nothing wrong. I've long thought that journalists have a blind spot about leaks, in that they convince themselves that the information in the leak is the story, not the government's willingness to harm someone by leaking. Journalists tend to be interested in the story "X is being investigated," and not so much in the story "law enforcement is willing to leak suspects to test the waters or soften them up or for other tactical advantages," which strikes me as credulous and submissive to power.
The public figure rule and the actual malice standard should be applied broadly to maximize protection of free speech. But Glenn Beck's bizarre and irrational conduct here is disturbing, as is the leak that led to it.