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Parsi v. Daioleslam

February 4, 2009

TRITA PARSI AND NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SEID HASSAN DAIOLESLAM,*FN1 DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This is a defamation case filed by Trita Parsi and the National Iranian American Council (collectively, "plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs allege that Seid Hassan Daioleslam ("defendant") published numerous false and defamatory statements that characterize plaintiffs as agents of the Iranian government. Now before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment.*fn2 For the reasons discussed below, further discovery is needed to develop certain aspects of plaintiffs' claim. Hence, defendant's summary judgment motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

Dr. Parsi, a resident of Washington, D.C., is the president of the National Iranian American Council ("NIAC"), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group. Compl. ¶¶ 9-10. The NIAC portrays itself as "dedicated to promoting Iranian American involvement in American civic life and relying on the public for financial and human resource support." Id. ¶ 10. Plaintiffs filed a three-count complaint against defendant, an Arizona resident, on April 25, 2008, seeking damages and injunctive relief for common law defamation and portrayal in a false light. Id. ¶ 11. The thrust of plaintiffs' complaint is that defendant "has published false and defamatory statements indicating that [plaintiffs are] member[s] of a subversive and illegal Iranian lobby colluding with the Islamic Republic of Iran . . . ." Id. ¶ 13. Plaintiffs highlight a series of defendant's allegedly defamatory statements in their complaint. See id. ¶¶ 17-18, 36. For example, plaintiffs take issue with defendant's statement that "NIAC is one of the Iranian regime's Lobby arms in the US." Id. ¶ 36(B). In another statement, defendant wrote that "Trita Parsi was the regime's trusted man within the new network." Id. ¶ 17(D). Plaintiffs also append six articles authored by the defendant, all of which allegedly contain defamatory statements. Plaintiffs argue that these statements injured their reputations in the community, thereby hampering NIAC's effectiveness as an advocacy group and damaging its ability to raise funds. Id. ¶¶ 23, 42-43.

Defendant filed this summary judgment motion on July 8, 2008. He claims that his statements are protected by the First Amendment because plaintiffs are public figures and because he did not publish the statements with actual malice. Defendant also argues that the First Amendment protects his statements because they are reasonably read as expressions of opinion, not declarations of facts. Finally, he argues that plaintiffs' claim must fail as a matter of law because the challenged statements are neither false nor defamatory.

STANDARD

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings . . . and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Material facts are those that "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party opposing a motion for summary judgment, however, "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading; rather, its response must -- by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule -- set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). The nonmoving party must do more than simply "show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Any factual assertions in the movant's affidavits will be accepted as being true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits or other documentary evidence contradicting the assertion. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

ANALYSIS

Defamation cases that, like this one, involve public figures fall at the intersection of common law and the First Amendment. The district court, sitting in diversity, must apply the state common law of defamation to the facts before it. Those laws seek to protect the individual's interest in his reputation. Waldbaum v. Fairchild Publ'ns, Inc., 627 F.2d 1287, 1291 (D.C. Cir. 1980) ("From its earliest days, the law of defamation made the individual's interest in his reputation supreme."). But at the same time, the Court must determine whether otherwise defamatory speech is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment reflects the "national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open . . . ." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964). The Supreme Court has reconciled these interests by concluding that the First Amendment requires some "breathing space" when public figures are involved. Id. at 272; see also Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342 (1974) (extending New York Times from public officials to public figures). To create that space, the Supreme Court has decreed that a public figure can only prevail in a defamation case upon a showing, by clear and convincing evidence, that an otherwise defamatory statement was made with "actual malice" -- that is, with "knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Masson v. New York, 501 U.S. 496, 509 (1991).

Here, the Court, sitting in diversity in the District of Columbia, applies the District's defamation law.

To state a cause of action for defamation, a plaintiff must allege four elements: (1) that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) that the defendant published the statement without privilege to a third party; (3) that the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence; and (4) either that the statement was actionable as a matter of law irrespective of special harm or that its publication caused the plaintiff special harm.

Blodgett v. University Club, 930 A.2d 210, 222 (D.C. 2007) (quoting Oparaugo v. Watts, 884 A.2d 63, 76 (D.C.2005)). However, defendant argues that plaintiffs are public figures. If the Court agrees -- and, as discussed below, it does -- then the First Amendment requires a greater showing of fault than is normally required by the third element listed above. Mere negligence will not suffice. Instead, plaintiffs must demonstrate that defendant published the statement with "actual malice." Masson, 501 U.S. at 509; Gertz, 418 U.S. at 342.

I. Public Figure

"Public figures" fall into one of two categories. "General public figures" are household names and well-known celebrities. See Waldbaum, 627 F.2d at 1294. Neither Dr. Parsi nor the NIAC has the kind of "general fame or notoriety" to be labeled a general public figure. See id. The closer question in this case is whether plaintiffs qualify for the second category of "limited public figures." Defendant, of course, argues that they do. See Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion ("Def. Mem.") at 5-7. And plaintiffs appear to take no issue with the application of that label to them -- their opposition memorandum ...


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