A federal appeals court in Richmond, VA has thrown out a defamation lawsuit brought by a government contractor against Randi Rhodes and her former syndicator, Air America Radio. The appeals court agreed with a lower court judge that Rhodes’ comments about the contractor’s involvement in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse were protected by the First Amendment.
“We have made a thorough and independent examination of the whole record, and we are satisfied that each of Rhodes’s statements that CACI challenges as defamatory is protected by the First Amendment: either it was not made with reckless disregard for the truth or it did not state actual facts about CACI (it was rhetorical hyperbole, for example). This case reminds us that ‘it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public [issues], and this opportunity is to be afforded for vigorous advocacy’ that may be caustic and even exaggerated,” Judge M. Blane Michael wrote for the three-judge panel, quoting from a 1964 case against the New York Times.
CACI International was one of the contractors which provided civilian interrogators for the US government at Abu Ghraib. The courts at both levels found that several of Rhodes’ comments about CACI were based on government reports, so CACI could not show that they were demonstrably false or that the radio host had acted with malice. The courts also held that hyperbole and exaggeration were protected speech as Rhodes discussed the situation in Iraq with a caller who brought up the government contractors.
“Yeah, don’t call them contractors, call them what they are, they’re hired killers, they’re mercenaries,” she said. “Hired killers, yeah,” the caller said. “Yeah, they’re hired killers,” Rhodes said. “Hired killers from Halliburton,” said the caller. “They’re from everywhere, they’re from DynCorp and CICA and Titan in the prisons, and then you’ve got Triple Canopy and Blackwater,” Rhodes said.
District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in Alexandria had ruled that such comments were “quintessential examples of non-actionable rhetorical hyperbole” and the appeals judges agreed.
Judge Roger Gregory joined Michael in the majority opinion of the appeals court granting summary judgment against CACI’s claims to Rhodes and Air America. Judge Allyson Duncan wrote a concurring opinion, emphasizing that even the “most egregious and ill-supported” of Rhodes’ statements “while approaching the outer limits of First Amendment protection, are nevertheless protected expression.”
RBR/TVBR observation: Randi Rhodes may be known to those of us in radio, but she is hardly a household name. We are encouraged that the list of companies and organizations which filed briefs in support of her in this court case reads like a who’s who of American journalism: Alm Media Inc., The Associated Press, Cox Communications, Dow Jones & Co., Gannett, Hearst, Landmark, Magazine Publishers of America, NBC Universal, New York Times, Newspaper Association of America, Newsweek, RTNDA, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Time Inc. and the Washington Post.