Free Speech on the Docket

Robert E. Murray, et al. v. The Huffington Post.com, Inc.

Status:
Closed
Case Dates:
Monday, 28 October, 2013 - Monday, 12 May, 2014
Facts:

Wilfred Michael Stark is a journalist for the Huffington Post.com. The Huffington Post is an internet news source. On September 20, 2013, Mr. Stark posted an article on the Huffington Post entitled “Meet the Extremist Coal Baron Bankrolling Ken Cuccinelli’s Campaign.” The article was highly critical of Murray Energy Corporation and its owner, Robert E. Murray. Murray Energy Corporation is a coal mining company, which has facilities in Ohio, Utah, Kentucky and Illinois. Among the comments made in the article, Mr. Stark stated that Murray had laid off over one hundred employees, making good on a threat to fire employees if Obama won reelection. Also, Mr. Stark mentioned that Mr. Murray was an “extremist billionaire” who “fires his workforce wholesale in fits of spite when electoral results disappoint him.” In response to the article, Mr. Murray initiated a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) in Belmont County Court of Common Pleas alleging defamation, false light and invasion of privacy. The Huffington Post retained legal counsel to protect its interests. A Virginia attorney, David Halperin, requested assistance from the ACLU of Ohio in defending Mr. Stark.

Wilfred Michael Stark is a journalist for the Huffington Post.com. The Huffington Post is an internet news source. On September 20, 2013, Mr. Stark posted an article on the Huffington Post entitled “Meet the Extremist Coal Baron Bankrolling Ken Cuccinelli’s Campaign.” The article was highly critical of Murray Energy Corporation and its owner, Robert E. Murray. Murray Energy Corporation is a coal mining company, which has facilities in Ohio, Utah, Kentucky and Illinois. Among the comments made in the article, Mr. Stark stated that Murray had laid off over one hundred employees, making good on a threat to fire employees if Obama won reelection. Also, Mr. Stark mentioned that Mr. Murray was an “extremist billionaire” who “fires his workforce wholesale in fits of spite when electoral results disappoint him.” In response to the article, Mr. Murray initiated a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) in Belmont County Court of Common Pleas alleging defamation, false light and invasion of privacy. The Huffington Post retained legal counsel to protect its interests. A Virginia attorney, David Halperin, requested assistance from the ACLU of Ohio in defending Mr. Stark.

Legal Theory:

SLAPP lawsuits are brought for the purpose of intimidating and discouraging persons from commenting or disseminating information about others that is of general interest. Mr. Stark’s comments were protected under the First Amendment because they were merely opinions and not statements of fact. In addition, because Mr. Murray is a public figure, he would have to prove that Mr. Stark made his comments with actual malice. This meant that Mr. Murray needed to show that Mr. Stark either had knowledge that the information was false or was in reckless disregard of whether or not it was false.

Status:

On September 24, 2013, Robert Murray filed a complaint in the Belmont County Court of Common Pleas. On October 25, 2013, Huffington Post removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, where it was assigned to Judge Gregory L Frost. On the same day, Mr. Murray submitted his complaint to the federal court. On November 1, 2013, we filed a motion to dismiss. On November 11, 2013, Plaintiff Robert Murray filed an amended complaint.  In response, we filed another motion to dismiss on November 27, 2013. Nearly a month later, on December 23, 2013, Murray filed a response in opposition to our motion to dismiss, and we filed a reply on January 9, 2014.

On May 12, 2014, Judge Gregory L. Frost granted both Plaintiffs Stark and Huffington Post’s motions to dismiss, and the case was dismissed. Judge Frost held that dismissal of both claims was warranted because Stark’s statements were constitutionally protected opinion, did not contain false statements of fact, did not mislead the reader, and did not place Murray in false light.  Defendant Murray did not appeal Judge Frost’s decision, and the case is now closed.