Supreme Court Justice Thomas Suggests Suing Media for Defamation Should Be Less Difficult

His comments came as high court refused to hear appeal in which church group sued Southern Poverty Law Center for defaming it as a 'hate group'
By Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.
June 27, 2022 Updated: June 27, 2022

It should be easier to sue media organizations for defamation, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said on June 27 as he dissented from the court’s decision not to take up a defamation case. Former President Donald Trump has also said the legal bar is currently set too high in media defamation lawsuits.

Thomas’s comments came in response to the court’s decision not to accept an appeal brought by Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based D. James Kennedy Ministries, which sued the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for defamation for including it in its controversial public database of so-called hate groups. The SPLC is a well-heeled far-left public interest law firm and publisher of newsletters.

Critics say the SPLC smears mainstream conservative and Christian organizations by lumping them in with real-life extremist and terrorist groups in its database, and also treats opposition to illegal or legal immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism as hate, and political expression of those views as hate speech.

The SPLC also has a record of promoting hate crime hoaxes, critics say, as well as ignoring bias incidents against white people and Jews targeted on university campuses by Islamist and anti-Israel groups. In June 2018, the SPLC paid more than $3 million as part of a legal settlement to reformed Muslim extremist Maajid Nawaz for wrongfully placing him and his now-defunct counter-extremism think tank, Quilliam Foundation, on an anti-Muslim hate list.

After the allegedly false designation, Amazon booted D. James Kennedy Ministries from its Amazon Smile program, which allows online shoppers to direct donations to charities such as the group. D. James Kennedy Ministries claimed it suffered financial injury as a result of Amazon’s decision and then sued the SPLC for defamation for imposing the hate group label on it.

In the case at hand, Thomas disagreed with his colleagues’ decision not to consider the lawsuit, which lower courts rejected because in their view it did not square with the “actual malice” standard the high court established in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). That precedent holds that public figures suing for defamation must prove not only that statements are defamatory but also that they were made with “actual malice.”

The case, Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion (pdf), “asks us to reconsider the ‘actual malice’ standard. As I have said previously, ‘we should,’” he wrote, referencing a series of dissents he and other jurists wrote in other cases.

Thomas wrote, “New York Times and the Court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” that have “no relation to the text, history, or structure of the Constitution.”

“This Court has never demonstrated otherwise. In fact, we have never even inquired whether ‘the First or Fourteenth Amendment, as originally understood, encompasses an actual-malice standard.’”

“This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’”

Thomas implied it was unfair to force D. James Kennedy Ministries to meet the “‘almost impossible’ actual-malice standard this Court has imposed,” which left the ministry organization unable “to hold SPLC to account for what it maintains is a blatant falsehood.”

The Supreme Court “should not ‘insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits’ unless ‘the First Amendment requires’ us to do so,” the justice wrote in his dissenting opinion in Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc. v. Southern Poverty Law Center, court file 21-802. Coral Ridge Ministries identifies itself in public as D. James Kennedy Ministries.

The Epoch Times reached out to the Southern Poverty Law Center for comment but the group did not respond as of press time.

The SPLC acknowledges that it labeled the ministry “an active hate group in 2013,” when it was called Truth in Action. “The group is listed as an anti-LGBTQ hate group because it maligns the LGBTQ community, portraying it as perverted and a threat to the nation.”

“The SPLC defines a hate group as an organization that, based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities, has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. The organizations on the SPLC’s hate group list vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity—prejudices that strike at the heart of our democratic values and fracture society along its most fragile fault lines,” according to the SPLC.

Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.