DOVER, Del. (AP) — A Delaware judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by former Donald Trump campaign operative Carter Page against the media company that includes Yahoo! and AOL and that formerly owned HuffPost.
The judge ruled last week that Page had failed to demonstrate that articles written about his connection to an FBI investigation into suspected Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign were defamatory or untrue.
Page claimed that he was harmed by the publication of false and defamatory statements suggesting that he was secretly plotting with Russian leaders to sabotage the 2016 election. Page was the target of a secret surveillance campaign by the FBI as part of an investigation into Russian interference in the campaign, but he was never charged with any wrongdoing.
The lawsuit was filed in July against Oath Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc. that is now known as Verizon Media and which includes Yahoo! and AOL. The company also owned HuffPost, formerly known as The Huffington Post, but sold it to BuzzFeed in November.
Page sought to hold Oath liable for 11 articles, particularly one written by Michael Isikoff and published by Yahoo! in September 2016.
Page took specific exception with Isikoff’s description of a dossier of information compiled during the course of the 2016 presidential campaign by Christopher Steele, a former British spy whose research into ties between Trump and Russia was financed by Democrats. The FBI used the dossier to obtain warrants to eavesdrop on Page, even though it was alerted that it might contain Russian disinformation and a key source for Steele was himself the target of an FBI investigation for possible connections to Russian intelligence.
Isikoff described the dossier as an “intelligence report,” and referred to Steele as “a well placed intelligence source,” according to court records.
Lawyers for Oath argued that the Isikoff article, and three other original content articles by HuffPost, were “essentially true.” They also said that the seven other articles that were contributed to HuffPost were protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Judge Craig Karsnitz said in his ruling that the Isikoff article simply stated that U.S. agencies were investigating reports of Page’s meetings with Russian officials and led to surveillance of him for more than a year.
“The article does not claim that plaintiff actually met with those officials,” the judge noted, adding that Page’s arguments regarding Isikoff’s description of the dossier and Steele were “either sophistry or political spin.”
“An intelligence report is simply a report of information potentially relevant to an investigation,” Karsnitz wrote. “It can take many forms, be true or false, and can be used as opposition research and an intelligence report.”
The use of the term “well placed intelligence source” does not unfairly give credence to the reporting, the judge added.
Karsnitz also ruled that the Isikoff article was protected under the Delaware fair reporting privilege that immunizes fair and accurate reports of governmental proceedings.
Turning to the 10 HuffPost articles, Karsnitz said Page, as a public figure, had failed to allege actual malice by any of the authors, and that the three articles written by HuffPost employees were true. Oath cannot be held liable for the seven HuffPost articles posted by third-party contributors, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, he said. That provision protects social media platforms from being sued by someone who feels wronged by something someone else has posted, regardless of whether the complaint is legitimate.
Critics in both major political parties have said Section 230 enables social media companies to abdicate their responsibility to impartially moderate content. Both Trump and his Democratic successor, Joe Biden, have called for its revocation.
Karsnitz noted that Section 230 pre-empts Delaware law, and that its application to the Page lawsuit is not “controversial.”
“The law was designed to foster ‘a true diversity of political discourse,’” he wrote. “By allowing third parties to comment on an issue of immense political concern, HuffPost did just that.”