Sign Here Petitions LLC v. Chavez – 8/29/2017

September 5, 2017

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a plaintiff suing for defamation must meet a heightened standard at summary judgment by showing with convincing clarity that considering all of the circumstances the allegedly defamatory statement is capable of defamatory meaning from the point of view of a reasonable person.

A company conducted a signature drive to place a client’s referendum measure on the ballot.  A rival criticized the company’s efforts, tweeting that the signature drive “will fail b/c of bad signatures,” “more than 1/3 of sigs . . . are suspected of being collected by felons,” and “$100K spent w/[the company] who delivered less than ½ of valid sigs necessary.”  In fact, the signature drive did fail, because about 40% of the signatures collected were invalid, and some were invalid because the company had employed two felons. 

The company sued its rival for defamation.  The superior court granted summary judgment to the rival, and the company appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  To prove that a published statement is defamatory, a plaintiff must prove that the statements are false statements of fact that bring the plaintiff into disrepute, contempt, ridicule, or otherwise disparage the plaintiff’s reputation.  Because of the free speech interests at stake in defamation cases, the plaintiff has a higher burden than usual at summary judgment, and must establish a prima facie case of defamatory meaning with convincing clarity.  Courts must consider not only the literal meaning of the allegedly defamatory words, but also how a reasonable person would understand the impression created and the general tenor of the expression.  Because the tweets had a general tenor of commercial puffing, exaggeration, and subjectivity, the company had not met its burden to show defamatory meaning with convincing clarity.

The Court also held that summary judgment was appropriate because the tweets were substantially true.  In general, the truth of the statements at issue is a complete defense to a defamation claim; the presence of slight or immaterial inaccuracies could not overcome that defense.

Judge McMurdie delivered the opinion of the court, in which Judge Cattani and Judge Thompson joined.