Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. v. Amazon.Com, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 19, 2019

CORAL RIDGE MINISTRIES MEDIA, INC., d/b/a D. James Kennedy Ministries, Plaintiff,
v.
AMAZON.COM, INC., et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          MYRON H. THOMPSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. (“Coral Ridge”) filed this lawsuit against three defendants: the Southern Poverty Law Center, Inc. (“SPLC”), Amazon.com, Inc. (“Amazon”), and the AmazonSmile Foundation (“AmazonSmile”). The lawsuit is based largely on Coral Ridge’s allegations that, because of its religious opposition to homosexual conduct, SPLC has designated it as a “hate group” and that, because of this designation, Amazon and AmazonSmile have excluded it from receiving donations through the AmazonSmile charitable-giving program.

         Coral Ridge has three claims against SPLC: a state claim that its “hate group” designation is defamatory and federal claims for false association and false advertising under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125. Coral Ridge has a single claim against the Amazon defendants: a federal claim that they excluded it from the AmazonSmile charitable-giving program based on religion, in violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a et seq.[1]

         This lawsuit is before the court on the United States Magistrate Judge’s recommendation to grant SPLC’s and the Amazon defendants’ motions to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules on Civil Procedure. After an independent and de novo review of the record, and for reasons that follow, the court overrules Coral Ridge’s objections to the recommendation and adopts the recommendation that this case should be dismissed in its entirety, albeit for reasons, in some instances, different from the magistrate judge’s.

         I. JURISDICTION

         The court has jurisdiction over Coral Ridge’s federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question), 42 U.S.C. § 2000a-6(a) (Title II), and 15 U.S.C. § 1121(a) (Lanham Act); and over its state claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367 (supplemental) and 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity).

         II. MOTION-TO-DISMISS STANDARD

         “To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must plead ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Michel v. NYP Holdings, Inc., 816 F.3d 686, 694 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “The allegations in the complaint must be accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Michel, 816 F.3d at 694.

         Crucially, however, the court need not accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of facts or legal conclusions masquerading as facts.” Oxford Asset Mgmt., Ltd., v. Jaharis, 297 F.3d. 1182, 1188 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Roberts v. Ala. Dept. of Youth Servs., 2013 WL 4046383, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Aug. 9, 2013) (Thompson, J.) (“[G]eneralizations, conclusory allegations, blanket statements, and implications will not” allow the complaint to survive a motion to dismiss). Conclusory allegations are those that express “a factual inference without stating the underlying facts on which the inference is based.” Conclusory, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

         As recognized by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the “application of the plausibility pleading standard makes particular sense when examining public figure defamation suits” such as this one, given that “there is a powerful interest in ensuring that free speech is not unduly burdened by the necessity of defending against expensive yet groundless litigation.” Michel, 816 F.3d at 702.

         III. BACKGROUND FACTS

         The allegations of the complaint, taken in the light most favorable to Coral Ridge, establish the following facts. Coral Ridge is a Christian ministry whose main activities include broadcasting via television, and otherwise spreading, the “Gospel of Jesus Christ, ” as well as fundraising. Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶¶ 32-39. In addition to being a Christian ministry, it is, by its own account, a media corporation, see id., as is also evident from its name, Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. Its vision statement, included in its bylaws, is “to communicate the Gospel ... and a biblically informed view of the world, using all available media.” Id. at ¶ 33. Its “mission” includes “proclaim[ing] the Gospel upon which this Nation was founded.” Id. at ¶ 38.

         Coral Ridge was founded in 1974 by David James Kennedy, an American pastor, evangelist, and broadcaster, and it produced a weekly television program, “The Coral Ridge Hour” (now called “Truths that Transform”), which “was carried on television networks and syndicated on numerous other stations with a peak audience of three million viewers in 200 countries.” Id. at ¶ 31-32. Kennedy also had a daily radio show that ran from 1984 to 2012. Id. at ¶ 32.

         Coral Ridge continues to broadcast Kennedy’s “Truths that Transform” on television. Id. at ¶¶ 35, 39. It espouses “biblical morals and principles” on homosexuality and marriage. Id. at ¶ 58. It also opposes same-sex marriage and the “homosexual agenda” based on its religious beliefs. Id. at ¶ 82.

         Coral Ridge alleges that it “opposes homosexual conduct, ” but “has nothing but love for people who engage in homosexual conduct.” Id. at ¶ 61. It says that its “position on LGBT issues is inextricably intertwined and connected to the [its] religious theology.” Id. at ¶ 155. It views homosexual conduct as “lawless, ” “an abomination, ” “vile, ” and “shameful.” Id. at ¶¶ 155, 175 (citing and quoting Bible verses). Coral Ridge not only admits that “the Ministry has been vocal about its position on homosexuality because it believes the Bible speaks clearly about God’s intent for marriage and sexuality, ” it also argues that “speaking out on these issues is necessary to fulfill the Ministry’s stated purpose of ’lovingly engag[ing] the culture with the heart and mind of Christ.’” Pl.’s Resp. to SPLC’s Mot. to Dismiss (doc. no. 51) at 10 (quoting Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶ 34(d)).

         SPLC is a nonprofit organization that, among a range of activities, disseminates a “Hate Map” that lists groups that it designates as “hate groups, ” including Coral Ridge. Id. at ¶¶ 20-21. SPLC’s Hate Map is located on its website, and defines “hate groups” as groups that “have beliefs or practices that malign or attack an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” Id. at ¶ 59. SPLC has disseminated the Hate Map in fundraising efforts and in its reports, training programs, and other informational services. Id. at ¶¶ 120, 121, 132.

         SPLC designated Coral Ridge as a hate group because of its espousal of biblical views concerning human sexuality and marriage--that is, because of its religious beliefs on those topics. Id. at ¶¶ 57-61; see also Id . at ¶¶ 154-55.

         Amazon is the largest internet-based retailer in the world by total sales and market capitalization. See Id . at ¶ 5. AmazonSmile is a tax-exempt corporation affiliated with Amazon. See Id . at ¶¶ 14, 41. Amazon and AmazonSmile operate the AmazonSmile program, whereby they donate 0.5 % of the price of a purchase made on smile.amazon.com to an eligible charitable organization selected by the customer. See Id . at ¶¶ 42-43. The vast majority of the items available for purchase through Amazon are also available for purchase through the AmazonSmile program at smile.amazon.com. See Id . at ¶ 15.

         To be selected by a customer to receive donations through the AmazonSmile program, an entity must satisfy the program’s eligibility requirements. See Id . at ¶ 44. These requirements include, among others, that the entity is “a [26 U.S.C.] § 501(c)(3) ... public charitable organization” located in the United States. Id. Furthermore, the organization cannot “engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities.” Id. Notably, “[e]ntities that are designated by [the] SPLC as hate groups are automatically ineligible” to receive donations through the AmazonSmile program. Id. at ¶ 23.

         Coral Ridge alleges that it attempted to register to receive donations through the AmazonSmile program, see Id . at ¶ 51, but that it was prohibited from doing so because SPLC had designated it as a “hate group, ” id. at ¶ 24, 53.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Defamation Claim Against SPLC

         Coral Ridge alleges that SPLC defamed it by designating it as a “hate group.”[2]

         Because “[a]t the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern, ” Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 503–504 (1984), a ‘public figure’ asserting a defamation claim must plausibly allege that the purported defamatory statement--here, the “Anti-LGBT hate group” designation[3]--was (1) provable as false and (2) actually false, and (3) that SPLC made the statement with “actual malice, ” that is, “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”[4] New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 280 (1964). Whether this heightened legal standard applies here depends on whether Coral Ridge is a public figure--and not just any one.

         A public figure is defined by the “notoriety of ... [its] achievements or the vigor and success with which ... [it] seek[s] the public's attention.” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342 (1974). “[P]ublic figures usually enjoy significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication and hence have a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy.” Id. at 323. Public figures thrust themselves and their views into the public controversy in an effort to influence others. See Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 135-36 (1979) (finding scientist was not a public figure in part because he “did not thrust himself or his views into public controversy to influence others”).

         Coral Ridge concedes it is a public figure, and this concession makes sense, given its focus on broadcasting its viewpoints through the media and the global reach of its television program. See Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at 32-33, 35, 39. Consequently, to succeed on this defamation claim against SPLC, it must satisfy the First Amendment heightened standard.[5]

         To decide whether Coral Ridge plausibly pleads these three constitutional requirements for its defamation claim, the court must first determine the meaning (or meanings) of the term “hate group.” For, without determining the meaning of “hate group, ” it is impossible to assess whether SPLC’s labeling of Coral Ridge as “Anti-LGBT hate group” was provable as false, actually false, and made with actual malice. Thus, the court will turn to Coral Ridge’s amended complaint to determine--under the motion-to-dismiss standard--the meaning of the term “hate group” for an average reader. See St. Surin v. Virgin Islands Daily News, Inc., 21 F.3d 1309, 1317 (3d Cir. 1994) (“In defamation actions, words should be construed as they would be understood by the average reader.”).

         1. Meaning of “Hate Group”

         As stated above, the tenet that a court must accept as true the allegations in a complaint does not apply to conclusory statements. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Therefore, in pleading the meaning of “hate group, ” Coral Ridge cannot rely on allegations that express “a factual inference without stating the underlying facts on which the inference is based.” Conclusory, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). As detailed below, Coral Ridge did just that.

         i. Coral Ridge’s Alleged Meaning of “Hate Group”

         The amended complaint asserts that, “A hate group is legally and commonly understood as one that engages [in] or advocates crime or violence against others based on their characteristics.” Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶ 91; see also Id . at ¶ 66. The alleged definitional requirement that hate groups “engage[] [in] or advocate[] crime or violence” is central to Coral Ridge’s claim, since Coral Ridge contends that its “hate group” designation is false because it “does not engage in or advocate violence or crime against any group.” Id. at ¶ 123; see also Id . at ¶¶ 66-69. In other words, Coral Ridge’s main falsity argument--and thus defamation claim--hinges on its allegation that a required trait of “hate groups” is engaging in or advocating crime or violence.[6]

         The court need not accept Coral Ridge’s alleged definition of “hate group” because it is a conclusory allegation. Critically, Coral Ridge fails to plead any facts to support its “generaliz[ed], ” “blanket statement[]” about the commonly understood meaning of “hate group.” Roberts, 2013 WL 4046383, at *2. It does not, for example, plead that “hate group” is anywhere defined--whether in a dictionary, or by any other source or entity--to require engaging in or advocating violence or crime. Coral Ridge thus asserts “a factual inference”--the commonly understood meaning of “hate group”--"without stating the underlying facts on which the inference is based.” Conclusory, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). The court will not accept Coral Ridge’s “naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement.” Simpson v. Sanderson Farms, Inc., 744 F.3d 702, 708 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         If courts considering motions to dismiss were obligated to accept as true plaintiffs’ factually unsupported definitions of words, concepts, and terms, it would make a mockery of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)’s pleading standard.[7] Requiring courts to accept as true plaintiffs’ pleaded definitions of words would be particularly inappropriate in public-figure defamation suits such as this one, where “there is a powerful interest in ensuring that free speech is not unduly burdened by the necessity of defending against expensive yet groundless litigation.” Michel, 816 F.3d at 702.

         Not only is Coral Ridge’s conclusorily asserted definition of “hate group” unsupported by any other factual allegations; worse yet, it is contradicted by more specific alleged facts that Coral Ridge pleads, cites in its briefing, and asserts to be subject to judicial notice.[8] This court’s “duty to accept the facts in the complaint as true does not require [it] to ignore specific factual details of the pleading in favor of general or conclusory allegations.” Griffin Indus., Inc. v. Irvin, 496 F.3d 1189, 1205-06, 1210 (11th Cir. 2007) (reversing denial of motions to dismiss where “the facts in [plaintiff’s] own complaint plainly contradict the conclusory allegation” in the complaint); see also Veney v. Wyche, 293 F.3d 726, 730 (4th Cir. 2002) (stating that the court need not “accept as true allegations that contradict matters properly subject to judicial notice”). Here, Coral Ridge’s conclusorily alleged and factually unsupported definition does not trump the concretely sourced, specific definitions of “hate group” that it cites.

         In its amended complaint and briefing, Coral Ridge cites three sources--other than itself and SPLC--of definitions of a “hate group”: (1) judicial opinions, (2) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and (3) the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The definitions--or, in the case of the judicial opinions, lack of a definition--of the term “hate group” provided by all of these sources directly contradict Coral Ridge’s allegation that a “hate group is legally and commonly understood as one that engages [in] or advocates crime or violence against others.” Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶ 91.

         To start, the amended complaint cites four judicial opinions to support its assertion that “the law defines a hate group as one whose activities include violence and crime.” Id. at ¶ 65. None of the cited opinions defines the term “hate group, ” and two do not even mention the term: Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003) (nowhere mentioning term); Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753 (1995) (nowhere mentioning term); Powers v. Clark, 2014 WL 6982475, at *3 n.10 (E.D. Va. Dec. 9, 2014) (Hudson, J.) (not defining term); Doe v. Pittsylvania Cnty., 844 F.Supp.2d 724, 740 (W.D. Va. 2012) (Urbanski, J.) (not defining term). The amended complaint’s blanket assertion that “hate group” is legally defined in a particular way is therefore contradicted by the more specific fact that none of the cases cited by Coral Ridge defines the term.

         Furthermore, unlike Coral Ridge’s definition, the FBI’s and ADL’s definitions of a “hate group” do not include a requirement that the group engage in or advocate crime or violence. According to Coral Ridge, the FBI defines “hate group” as, “An organization whose primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons of or with a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity which differs from that of the members or the organization, e.g., the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party.” Pl.’s Resp. to SPLC’s Mot. to Dismiss (doc. no. 51) at 5 (quoting FBI, Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines And Training Manual, at 9 (2015), https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime-data-collection-guidelines-and-training-manual.pdf).[9] The ADL defines a “hate group” as “an organization whose goals and activities are primarily or substantially based on a shared antipathy towards people of one or more different races, religions, ethnicities/nationalities/national origins, genders, and/or sexual identities. ... [T]he group itself must have some hate-based orientation/purpose.” Id. at 5-6 (quoting Hate Group, ADL, https://www. adl.org/resources/glossary-terms/hate- group).[10]Again, neither of these definitions contains the crime or violence requirement.[11]

         In addition to conflicting with the FBI and ADL definitions, Coral Ridge’s alleged definition of “hate group” is inconsistent with this court’s “common sense” understanding of the words “hate” and “group.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (explaining that courts must draw on their “common sense” in determining whether plaintiffs meet the plausibility pleading standard). While the word “hate” is sometimes associated with violence and crime, it does not necessarily connote the two. Plainly, the word “group” carries no such connotation.

         In sum, the court need not accept Coral Ridge’s blanket contention that a “hate group” is “legally and commonly understood as one that engages [in] or advocates crime or violence against others, ” Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶ 91, given that it is not only factually unsupported, but also contradicted by the FBI and ADL definitions that Coral Ridge cites, as well as by the court’s common-sense understanding of the words “hate” and “group.”

         Beyond belying the alleged crime or violence element of the “hate group” definition, the FBI and ADL definitions also show that the term does not have a single, “commonly understood” meaning. This is because the definitions contain important differences from one another. For example, unlike the FBI definition, the ADL definition does not require that the group “promote” animosity, hostility, malice, antipathy, or the like; under the ADL’s definition, a white supremacist organization is still a “hate group” even if it keeps to itself. See Pl.’s Resp. to SPLC’s Mot. to Dismiss (doc. no. 51) at 5-6. Further, the FBI definition requires that a group’s “primary purpose” be the promotion of its bigoted ideas, while the ADL definition is broader, including those whose “goals and activities” are “substantially based” on a shared antipathy towards people of a certain group.

         The conclusion that the term “hate group” has no single, commonly understood meaning is reinforced by the lack of a definition for the term in dictionaries, of which the court takes judicial notice. See Veney, 293 F.3d at 730 (“Nor must we accept as true allegations that contradict matters properly subject to judicial notice or by exhibit.)”. Neither Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019), Merriam-Webster Unabridged (online ed.), nor the Oxford English Dictionary (online ed.), defines the term “hate group.”[12]

         ii. Court’s Conclusion as to Meaning of “Hate Group”

         Accepting as true the well-pleaded facts--but not the conclusory allegations--and construing them in the light most favorable to Coral Ridge, the court concludes that there is no single, commonly understood meaning of the term “hate group.” Rather, as shown by the conflicting definitions cited by Coral Ridge--and dictionaries’ lack of a definition--the term does not have one precise definition, and instead may be ascribed multiple different meanings by “the average reader.” St. Surin, 21 F.3d at 1317.[13]

         With this determination as to the meaning of “hate group” in mind, the court will now assess whether Coral Ridge has plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.[14]

         2. Constitutional Requirements for Defamation

         As previously mentioned, the First Amendment imposes three requirements on Coral Ridge: It must plausibly allege that the “hate group” designation is provable as false and actually false, and that SPLC made the designation with “actual malice.” While Coral ofotherpeople.”See Ridge must meet all three requirements, it cannot, for the reasons outlined below, satisfy any of them.

         i. Provable as False

         Under the First Amendment, the “hate group” designation is not actionable unless it is “provable as false.” Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 19 (1990).[15] Statements are provable as false when their truth or falsity can be determined based on “a core of objective evidence.” Id. at 21. Put differently, the requirement is satisfied if the statement is “subject to empirical verification.” Michel, 816 F.3d at 697.

         An alleged defamatory statement is generally not provable as false when it labels the plaintiff with a term that has an imprecise and debatable meaning. See, e.g., Buckley v. Littell, 539 F.2d 882, 893-94 (2d Cir. 1976). In Buckley, the author and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. sued author and Holocaust scholar Franklin H. Littell for libel because Littell’s book characterized Buckley as a “fellow traveler” of “fascism” or the “radical right.” Id. at 890, 893. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that those terms were “concepts whose content is so debatable, loose and varying, that they are insusceptible to proof of truth or falsity.” Id. at 894. As the court emphasized, the ambiguous labels contrasted sharply with accusations of being a member or legislative representative of a concrete political party, which are allegations that are “susceptible to proof or disproof of falsity.” Id. That the plaintiff and defendant defined “fascism” differently was but one example of the “imprecision of the meaning and usage of the[] term[] in the realm of political debate.” Id. at 890, 893.

         Subsequently, in Ollman v. Evans, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals elaborated on and applied the principles set forth in Buckley. See 750 F.2d 970, 979-87 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (en banc).[16] The court held to be “obviously unverifiable” the alleged defamatory statement that the plaintiff academic was an “outspoken proponent of political Marxism.” Id. at 987. It highlighted that the characterization was “much akin to” the “fascist” label in Buckley, in that it was a “loosely definable, variously interpretable statement” made in the context of “political, social or philosophical debate.” Id. The D.C. Circuit contrasted, on the one hand, the political Marxist and fascist designations with, on the other, an accusation of a crime, which is a “classic example of a statement with a well-defined meaning.” Id. at 980. Even though accusations of crimes are “not records of sense perceptions, ” they depend for their meaning on social norms that “are so commonly understood that the statements are seen by the reasonable reader or hearer as implying highly damaging facts.” Id.

         The Ollman court explained why demanding that defamatory statements be “objectively capable of proof or disproof” safeguards important free speech interests: “[I]nsofar as a statement is unverifiable, the First Amendment is endangered when attempts are made to prove the statement true or false.” Id. at 981. This is because without “a clear method of verification with which to evaluate a statement--such as labelling a well-known American author a ‘fascist’--the trier of fact may improperly tend to render a decision based upon approval or disapproval of the contents of the statement, its author, or its subject.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “An obvious potential for quashing or muting First Amendment activity looms large when juries attempt to assess the truth of a statement that admits of no method of verification.” Id. at 981-82.

         So, with these cases in mind, is the statement that Coral Ridge is a “hate group” provable as false? No, it is not. Like in Ollman and Buckley, the meaning of the term “hate group” is so “debatable, loose and varying, ” that labeling Coral Ridge as one is “insusceptible to proof of truth or falsity.” Buckley, 539 F.2d at 894. Similar to the terms “fascism, ” “radical right, ” and “political Marxist, ” the term “hate group” also suffers from a “tremendous imprecision of the meaning and usage ... in the realm of political debate.” Id. at 893. This imprecision is reflected in the conflicting definitions of the term espoused by Coral Ridge and SPLC, as well as by the ADL, and FBI. Unlike the accusation of a crime, the accusation of being a hate group does not derive its meaning from “commonly understood” social norms. Ollman, 750 F.2d at 980. A “hate group” designation is also a far cry from the objectively verifiable allegation of having a “well-defined political affiliation, ” such as being “a legislative representative of the Communist Party.” Buckley, 539 F.2d at 894.

         In sum, because “hate group” has a highly debatable and ambiguous meaning, Coral Ridge’s designation as such is not “provable as false.” Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 19.[17] Therefore, the First Amendment protects the statement.

         ii. False

         In addition to requiring that a defamatory statement be provable as false, the First Amendment also requires that “a public-figure plaintiff must show the falsity of the statements at issue in order to prevail in a suit for defamation.” Phila. Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 775 (1986); see also Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 52 (1988). Coral Ridge cannot prove the falsity of the “hate group” designation, given that, as the court has found, the designation is not provable as false. Logically speaking, a plaintiff cannot prove what is not provable. Cf. Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 16, 19 (inferring the provable-as-false requirement from Hepps’s requirement to prove falsity).

         This court’s holdings that Coral Ridge does not plausibly plead that the “hate group” designation was (1) provable as false or (2) false are each independently sufficient to dismiss the defamation claim. Nevertheless, the court will now discuss Coral Ridge’s failure to plead, plausibly, actual malice, which is an alternative ground for dismissing the claim.

         iii. Actual Malice

         The third and final First Amendment hurdle for Coral Ridge is that it must plausibly allege that SPLC made the “hate group” designation with “actual malice, ” that is, “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” New York Times, 376 U.S. at 280. “Actual malice” requires falsity. See Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper, 571 U.S. 237, 247 (2014) (“One could in principle construe the language of the actual malice standard to cover true statements made recklessly. But we have long held, to the contrary, that actual malice entails falsity.”). Therefore, Coral Ridge’s failure to plead plausibly that the “hate group” designation is provable as false or false necessarily means that it cannot plausibly allege “actual malice.”

         Nonetheless, for the following reasons, even if the court were to conclude that the “hate group” label was both provable as false and actually false, Coral Ridge still would not plausibly allege actual malice.

         The test for actual malice “is not an objective one and the beliefs or actions of a reasonable person are irrelevant.” Michel, 816 F.3d at 702-03 (citing St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968)). Rather, the plaintiff must plead enough facts to allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant, “instead of acting in good faith, actually entertained serious doubts as to the veracity of the published account, or was highly aware that the account was probably false.” Id. Coral Ridge does not satisfy this test.

         Coral Ridge’s basic contention regarding actual malice is that the “hate group” definition that SPLC used in designating it as such is so far removed from the commonly understood meaning of the term that SPLC must have known--or at least recklessly disregarded--the falsity of the designation. See, e.g., Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶ 67 (“SPLC’s definition of ‘hate group’ is so far outside of how hate groups are legally and culturally understood that ... SPLC knew of the falsity of its definition at the time it designated the Ministry a hate group ... .”); id. at ¶ 67, 69. In other words, according to Coral Ridge, SPLC’s actual malice should be inferred from the gaping disparity between, on the one hand, the common understanding that all hate groups engage in or advocate crime or violence, and, on the other, SPLC’s broader definition of “hate group” and its application of that definition to Coral Ridge for “oppos[ing] homosexual conduct.” Id. at ¶ 61.

         Fatal to Coral Ridge’s contention is the reality that “hate group” has no single, commonly understood meaning. Without a commonly understood meaning, there can be no chasm between the commonly understood meaning and SPLC’s definition.

         Furthermore, Coral Ridge still would not plausibly allege actual malice even if this court were to accept as true its allegation that the single, commonly understood meaning of “hate group” requires that the group engage in or advocate crime or violence. Granted, if that were the case, there would be a significant discrepancy between the commonly understood meaning of a hate group and SPLC’s definition, given that the latter lacks a violence or crime requirement. And, admittedly, a substantial disparity between the commonly understood meaning of a term and the definition relied on by an alleged defamatory speaker might, in certain circumstances, lead to a reasonable inference of knowledge or recklessness as to falsity. Cf. Michel, 816 F.3d at 703 (noting that the Supreme Court has stated that actual malice “can be inferred in certain circumstances, ” such as when allegations are “so inherently improbable that only a reckless man would have put them in circulation”). Nevertheless, those circumstances are not present under the facts pleaded here.

         Specifically, Coral Ridge pleads that SPLC, holding itself out to the public as a “premier” U.S. monitor of “hate groups, ” publicly disseminates its own definition of “hate groups” to a “vast” audience of people and media across the country. Am. Compl. (doc. no. 40) at ¶¶ 71, 143.[18] Coral Ridge does not plead any facts indicating that SPLC subjectively doubts or disbelieves the validity or accuracy of the definition that it so widely promotes under the banner of being a premier “hate group” monitor. Consequently, even if the court accepted Coral Ridge’s asserted commonly understood meaning of “hate group, ” the pleaded facts, read in the light most favorable to Coral Ridge, would support the reasonable inference that SPLC promotes its own sincerely held view of the meaning of “hate group, ” despite the difference between its view and the commonly understood meaning that a “hate group” engages in or advocates crime or violence.[19] Setting aside the above-discredited allegations claiming a common definition of “hate group, ” the pleaded facts do not lead to a reasonable inference that “instead of acting in good faith, ” SPLC “actually entertained serious doubts as to the veracity” of its “hate group” definition and application to Coral Ridge, or was “highly aware” that the definition and designation was “probably false.” Michel, 816 F.3d at 702-03.[20] The bottom line is that, regardless of the commonly understood meaning of “hate group, ” Coral Ridge does not plausibly allege that SPLC’s subjective state of mind was sufficiently culpable.

         To find actual malice just because SPLC publicized a meaning of “hate group” that conflicted with the common understanding of the term would severely undermine debate and free speech about a matter of public concern. This is because, even if the term had achieved a commonly understood meaning, that meaning would not be fixed forever, but rather could evolve through public debate. To sanction a speaker for promoting a genuinely held dissenting view of the meaning of “hate group” would be akin to punishing a speaker for advocating new conceptions of terms like “terrorist, ” “extremist, ” “sexist, ” “racist, ” “radical left wing, ” “radical right wing, ” “liberal, ” or “conservative.” Punishing speakers to preserve status quo ideas would be anathema to the First Amendment.

         ***

         If Coral Ridge disagrees with the “hate group” designation, its hope for a remedy lies in the “marketplace of ideas, ” not a defamation action. Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 18 (citing Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting) (“[T]he ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas-- ... the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”). As a public figure, with a national, if not international audience, and a figure that has already “been vocal about its position on homosexuality” and maintains that “speaking out on these issues is necessary, ” Pl.’s Resp. to SPLC’s Mot. to Dismiss (doc. no. 51) at 10, Coral Ridge is free publicly to engage SPLC; to criticize SPLC’s definition of a “hate group”; and, in particular, to challenge Coral Ridge’s designation as such. This engagement should be in the court of public opinion, not a federal court. The defamation claim will be dismissed with prejudice.

         B. Lanham Act Claims Against SPLC

         Coral Ridge seeks to hold SPLC liable for its designation of Coral Ridge as a “hate group” under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, which is codified at 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a). This provision establishes “two distinct bases of liability: false association, § 1125(a)(1)(A), and false advertising, § 1125(a)(1)(B).” Lexmark Int'l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 572 U.S. 118, 122 (2014). Coral Ridge brings both types of claims.

         Coral Ridge claims that SPLC engaged in false advertising by falsely designating it a “hate group” on its Hate Map, disseminating the Map and “hate group” designation in connection with reports and trainings, and engaging in fundraising focused on the Hate Map and “hate group” designations. See 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1)(B) (establishing claim for use “in connection with goods and services” of “a false or misleading description of fact ... in commercial advertising or promotion”).

         Coral Ridge’s false-association claim rests on many of the same allegations, but focuses on SPLC’s use of Coral Ridge's trademarked name. Coral Ridge contends that the use of its trademarked name on the Hate Map is likely to cause confusion as to Coral Ridge’s “association” with other hate groups on the Map, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. See 15 U.S.C. ยง 1125(a)(1)(A) (establishing claim for use of a ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.