Updated 7:29 p.m.
A federal judge in Washington yesterday dismissed a defamation suit against the CBS network and a professional researcher, saying free speech rights protect statements made during a "60 Minutes" episode about alleged terrorist financing activity in the United States.
Judge Rosemary Collyer of Washington’s federal trial court granted a joint motion for summary judgment in favor of the defendants, ruling the First Amendment protected statements on the broadcast.
The “60 Minutes” episode, which aired in May 2003, featured a woman named Rita Katz, a self-described terrorist hunter whose tips to the authorities have led to government-executed search warrants. Katz used a fake name and was in disguise.
Government investigators, relying in part on information Katz provided, executed search warrants at a Georgia poultry producer in March 2002 during a terrorist financing investigation, court records show. Mar-Jac Poultry Inc. later sued Katz and CBS in a case that was moved to Washington’s federal district court. The suit had been pending since 2003. (Click here for a Mar-Jac statement about the raid.)
“Looking at the broadcast as a whole, any defamatory implication that money flowed through Mar-Jac to terrorists was presented as mere speculation,” Collyer said. “Any further implication that Mar-Jac acted knowingly in laundering money to assist terrorists or terrorist groups remained so unspoken that it, too, could only be—at best—speculation and surmise.”
On the “60 Minutes” piece, Katz claimed that manipulation of money in the chicken production industry is the “best cover for money laundering.” She said “you can’t trace money with chickens.” Katz spoke about the possibility of misreporting the death of millions of chickens and how “no one could prove it.”
Mar-Jac’s name is never spoken on the broadcast; its name, however, is displayed several times during the piece. During the broadcast, there were no direct statements that Mar-Jac knowingly engaged in money laundering.
In the suit, lawyers for Mar-Jac alleged Katz of directly or indirectly accused the company of money laundering to support terrorism. Attorneys for the company said CBS "never bothered even to contact Mar-Jac to get a response or to explore whether Katz's claims made sense."
A lawyer for Mar-Jac, Nancy Luque of Washington’s Luque Marino, said the company was “stunned by a decision that permits the false accusation of reprehensible criminal conduct to be broadcast on a well-respected national television program.” Luque said the company is discussing its options.
Luque said Collyer found Katz statements were "of and concerning" Mar-Jac and that a jury could find them to be defamatory. "Further the fact that the company's reputation was seriously injured by this conduct best demonstrates that reasonable people could and did believe Katz," Luque said.
Lawyers for CBS, including Lee Levine of Washington’s Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz and attorneys for Katz said the statements were not defamatory. CBS’s lawyers said the network did not endorse the accuracy of Katz’s statements and that the broadcast was a privileged fair report on a government investigation.
Levine declined to comment. A lawyer for Katz, Laura Handman of Davis Wright Tremaine, was not immediately reached for comment this afternoon.
In her ruling, Collyer said even if the "60 Minutes" broadcast could be found defamatory under Georgia law, the court must determined whether the First Amendment protected the episode.
In her ruling, Collyer said no jury "could find that Ms. Katz’s statements about laundering money through misreporting dead chickens were anything but rank speculation, surmise or hyperbole, engendered, perhaps, by her thrill at being involved in an uncover capacity,” Collyer said in her 34-page ruling.
Collyer said “Ms. Katz’s statement that if one wanted, one could report ten million dead chickens a year, was clearly hyperbolic, speculative, and as surmise did not imply a verifiably false fact.”
The “cumulative effect” of Katz’s “speculative language” in the broadcast, Collyer said, “makes clear that she was only presenting an hypothesis, and not implying that she was in possession of objectively verifiable facts."