A New York state court has thrown out a libel case brought by a conservative political commentator against President-elect Donald Trump, after he referred to her on Twitter as a “dummy,” and a “major loser,” and claimed that she “begged” him for a job.
Cheri Jacobus sued then-candidate Trump earlier this year following a couple of Tweets in which he reacted negatively to her appearances on TV to talk about his presidential campaign:
The implication, alleged Jacobus, was that Trump had defamed her by accusing her of unprofessional conduct and misrepresenting the facts with regard to her potential involvement in his campaign.
She appears to take umbrage with Trump’s statement that Jacobus had “begged us for a job. We said no and she went hostile.”
In her lawsuit, she detailed her version of events, contending that it was the Trump campaign who reached out to her in May 2015 — a month before officially announcing his candidacy — to gauge her interest in becoming the campaign’s communications director.
Jacobus says that in early June 2015 she met with Trump campaign officials, including Corey Lewandowski, who was then running the Trump presidential efforts.
Her side of how that meeting went, according to court documents [PDF]:
“At this meeting, during a discussion about communications issues, Lewandowski became agitated, loud, and rude, exclaiming that the FOX television network would do whatever the campaign wanted, and telling [Jacobus] that she had no idea how FOX works.”
According to Jacobus, this brief interaction was sufficient to convince her that she “could not work for Lewandowski,” a sentiment she says she subsequently communicated to the campaign official who had arranged the meeting.
That was the last discussion she had about the job until early 2016, when she appeared on various cable news shows to discuss the GOP debates and the Trump campaign.
That was when then-candidate Trump published the above Tweets, which Jacobus said also resulted in numerous follow-up comments from other Twitter users that ranged from insulting to sexual to threatening, such as one with an illustration of Jacobus situated in a gas chamber with Trump standing outside ready to push the button.
However, a New York state court judge ruled yesterday that “context is key” and “defamatory statements advanced during the course of a heated public debate, during which an audience would reasonably anticipate the use of epithets, fiery rhetoric or hyperbole, are not actionable.”
The ruling points to the difference between a news article in a newspaper and something printed on that same paper’s editorial page. The former exists in a context where there is an expectation factual statements, while the latter is where one expects statements of opinion. Then there’s the “free-wheeling, anything-goes writing style” of the internet.
Thus, says the judge, inflammatory comments made on social media, “have been held to warrant an understanding that the statements contained therein are vigorous expressions of personal opinion, rather than the rigorous and comprehensive presentation of factual matter.”
With regard to the Jacobus claim that Trump’s disputed statement about her begging for a job with his campaign, the judge concludes that the sentiment of Trump’s Tweets is not specific enough to be actionable.
For a statement to suggest that the subject is incapable of doing their job correctly, it must be specific to their field of work, explains the judge, and not just a generalized statement. The ruling gives examples of actionable statements, like referring to a physician as a “butcher” or claiming that a chauffeur has a drinking problem.
Writes the judge, “To the extent that the word ‘begged’ can be proven to be a false representation of plaintiff’s interest in the position, the defensive tone of the tweet, having followed plaintiff’s negative commentary about Trump, signals to readers that plaintiff and Trump were engaged in a petty quarrel.”
Interestingly, in dismissing the suit against Trump, the judge cites a 1985 dismissal of a libel lawsuit brought by Trump against the Chicago Tribune, after the real estate developer took issue with statements made by the Trib’s in-house architecture critic. He concludes, much like that court did more than three decades ago, that much more damaging and inflammatory comments than this have been considered non-actionable.