A federal judge on Thursday tossed the libel lawsuit Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, had filed against CNN, Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post, ruling that even though they made errors, the news organizations didn’t do it with malice.
Judge Royce C. Lamberth did deliver a spanking to Huffington Post and Rolling Stone, saying they published stories on Mr. Arpaio that were “not substantially true.” CNN’s piece, while making an error, was on the whole accurate, the judge found.
Mr. Arpaio sued after the news organizations called him a felon or, in the case of Huffington Post, said he had been sent to prison.
In fact, Mr. Arpaio was convicted of misdemeanor contempt of court, not a felony, and he earned a pardon from President Trump before he even filed an appeal, much less served time behind bars.
All three news organizations claimed their reports were still substantially true, despite the errors.
Judge Lamberth said that was true in the case of CNN. Although host Chris Cuomo labeled Mr. Arpaio a felon, the actual story he was introducing correctly identified his conviction as a misdemeanor. And Mr. Cuomo quickly explained on air that he got it wrong.
CNN did not correct an online article until Mr. Arpaio sued, but that wasn’t enough of a transgression, the judge said.
“The court agrees with the CNN defendants that the sting or gist of the statements, when taken together, was that Mr. Arpaio flagrantly disregarded a court order, which resulted in criminal charges and an eventual conviction,” he wrote. “Because the report provided the context or Mr. Arpaio’s conviction, the difference between a felony or a misdemeanor became less meaningful.”
Rolling Stone, though, did not provide any context for its “ex-felon” claim, the judge ruled.
And Huffington Post’s claim that the former sheriff served prison time left a clearly wrong impression in readers’ minds, he rule.
“The court holds that the HuffPost defendants’ erroneous publication was not substantially true,” Judge Lamberth said.
He also rejected Huffington Post’s claim that the true but derogatory things it reported about Mr. Arpaio were so bad that his reputation couldn’t be more damaged by the wrong report about prison time.
But after delivering those spankings, the judge ruled that Mr. Arpaio never proved the publications acted with “actual malice” — the key standard in winning a libel case.
“Allegations of ‘leftist enmity’ cannot trump the guarantees of the First Amendment,” he wrote in dismissing the lawsuit.