Harris v. McCarthy – 4/14/2023

June 29, 2023

Arizona Supreme Court holds statements made about political candidate on political talk show were not actionable for defamation.

In November 2020, a local radio host attended a political rally and gave a speech. Towards the end of that speech, several of the attendees began chanting the name of a political candidate, who later gave his own speech. Later, the radio host discussed the rally, the candidate, and the candidate’s supporters. Some of the statements the host made included: (1) his view that the candidate had “absolutely no control of his emotions or the emotions” of his supporters; (2) the conduct of the candidate’s supporters “was downright frightening because they were unhinged”; (3) the candidate and his supporters “were acting like Antifa,”; (4) the candidate “surrounded himself with thugs”; (5) the candidate “attacked” the host at the rally; (6) the candidate’s supporters “got hostile” at the rally; (7) the candidate had created “something called the Guerilla [or Gorilla] Party”; (8) that the candidate had promised to put more of his own money into his past campaign than he actually did; and (9) as a result, the candidate “didn’t even have enough faith in his own voice to invest in it.”

These statements, among others, led the candidate to sue the radio host for defamation. The radio host moved to dismiss. The superior court determined that, of the statements the candidate alleged were defamatory, the nine listed above could be actionable as defamation. Specifically, the first six statements were actionable because their “gist” was that the candidate and his supporters threatened violence, the seventh was actionable because it was possibly a defamatory fact, and the last two were actionable because they could be proven true or false. Based on those conclusions, the superior court denied the motion to dismiss. The radio host sought special action review in the court of appeals and, when the court of appeals declined to accept jurisdiction, sought relief from the Arizona Supreme Court.

The Arizona Supreme Court granted review and reversed the superior court’s ruling. The Court began its analysis by stressing that the radio hosts comments must be understood in context and, to be actionable, they had to both be false and bring the character of the allegedly defamed person into disrepute. Against that backdrop, the Court “readily” concluded that the first six statements, as well as the ninth, were not actionable because none of them could reasonably be interpreted as a factual assertion. Instead, they were the radio host’s personal impressions, uttered in the context of a radio show that depended on political hyperbole and “rhetorical political invective” for the purposes of entertainment.

As to the seventh and eighth statements, the Court concluded they were not actionable as a matter of law because, even if false, they did not impugn the candidate’s character. Stating that the candidate had formed a new political party was essentially a statement that the candidate had exercised a constitutional right, which does not speak to his character and, accordingly, does not give rise to a claim for defamation. Likewise, when understood in context, an assertion that the candidate did not put as much of their own money into their campaign as they originally said would not impugn the integrity of the candidate. Instead, it was akin to political commentary, which was not actionable.

Justice Montgomery authored the opinion for the unanimous Court.

Posted by: Joshua J. Messer