The University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic and pro bono counsel from BakerHostetler won an important victory for press freedoms on behalf of an independent journalist who reports on the world of obstacle course racing (OCR).

In late 2019, the journalist published on his news website an article that shined a light on a pattern of alleged inappropriate sexual conduct by Plaintiff. The article resulted in Plaintiff being banned from racing events hosted by national OCR companies. Plaintiff then sued the journalist and his website for defamation and other claims.

In March 2023, the federal district court for the Northern District of Georgia granted summary judgment on the defamation claim because Plaintiff was found to be a limited-purpose public figure. Although the court denied summary judgment on the invasion of privacy claims in the favor of Plaintiff, the court found a lack of evidence that the journalist published the challenged statements with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for their truth. The court observed that the journalist believed the statements to be true and that he “spent considerable time gathering information and sources for the [article]; he spoke with twenty individuals and only relied on those sources who he considered to be credible.”

The court’s summary judgment decision is a significant win for freedoms of speech and press. It protects the journalist’s accurate reporting about an online community leader’s conduct that was a source of public controversy and constituted a matter of public concern.

With the defamation claim resolved in the journalist’s favor, the court ordered the parties to mediate the remaining claims of false light invasion of privacy and invasion of privacy for the publication of private facts, which the parties were able to settle through the mediation in May 2023.

Thanks to the following First Amendment Clinic students, law fellows, and interns who have worked on this case from 2020 through 2023 under the supervision of Clinic Director Clare Norins: Lindsey Floyd, Samantha Hamilton, Donavan Juleus, Matthew Hashemi, Jeffrey Murphy, Ruth Owen, Kyle Renner, Navroz Tharani, and Nirali Vyas.

The pro bono team at BakerHostetler includes Derek Bauer, Ian Byrnside, Kristen Rasmussen, Erin Victoria (former associate), and Bobby Daniels (former associate).

Thanks also to the First Amendment Clinics at Cornell Law School, Duke Law School, and Southern Methodist University, and to pro bono counsel at Ballard Spahr, Vinson & Elkins, and The First Amendment Project for providing representation to some of the non-party sources for the journalist’s article.

Case documents can be accessed through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (“PACER”) website for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The case number is 1:19-cv-05785-JPB.

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The Issue

Defamation Defense

Defamation is a false statement of fact that harms the reputation of a person, business, or organization. Journalists, news organizations, and even ordinary people can be sued for defamation, which is a common tactic to chill or silence legitimate speech and criticism. Read more about our defamation defense work here.

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