Last year, country music superstar Blake Shelton filed suit in federal court against the creators and publishers of In Touch Weekly, bringing claims of libel per se and false light invasion of privacy after the magazine published allegedly false statements in its cover story headlines and an accompanying article about Shelton’s purported drinking habit and his having entered rehab. The case is Blake Tollison Shelton v. Bauer Publishing Company, L.P., et al., Case No. 2:15-cv-09057-CAS (AGRx) in the Central District of California. The defendants moved to strike Shelton’s complaint pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP statute. Several days ago, the court denied the defendants’ motion.
According to Shelton, the allegedly false statements portrayed him as a man unhinged and, as stated on the magazine’s cover, a man at “rock bottom.” Shelton claims that the magazine published a significant number of falsehoods. The headline read “REHAB for Blake” and the cover page made reference to Shelton “finally hit[ting] rock bottom” and his purported drinking “destroy[ing] his marriage,” and how his “friends begged him to stop joking about drinking & get help.” The article itself contained a number of additional, allegedly false, statements about Shelton, his purported drinking, and the purported consequences thereof. The article did not, however, expressly state that Shelton had entered rehab, but instead indicated that Shelton’s “close friends have talked about an intervention” and that his “friends, colleagues and handlers won’t give up on him – and have all urged him to seek help.”
The defendants sought to “SLAPP” Shelton’s suit, arguing that his claims arise from their acts (i) made in furtherance of their free speech rights, and (ii) in connection with a public issue. In ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion, the court engages in a two-step process. First, it decides whether the defendants have made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from a protected activity. If they succeed in making that showing, then, second, the burden shifts to plaintiff to establish a “reasonable probability” of prevailing on his claim, by showing that the complaint is both legally sufficient and supported by a prima facie showing of facts to sustain a favorable judgment if the evidence submitted by the plaintiff is credited.
First Step: Have Defendants Made A Threshold Showing Of Protected Activity? Court Says YES.
The Court determined that the anti-SLAPP statute applied because Shelton’s claims arise from acts in furtherance of the defendants’ free speech rights. The magazine article related to “a public issue or an issue of public interest” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16(e)) – this standard includes “events that transpire between private individuals” and “need not involve question of civic concern; social or even low-brow topics may suffice.” Hilton v. Hallmark Cards, 599 F.3d 894, 905 (9th Cir. 2010) (citations and quotations omitted). The court relied heavily on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Sarver v. Chartier(discussed in a prior blog post) in conducting its “public issue” analysis. Ultimately, the court determined that the magazine article constituted (i) statements concerning a person or entity in the public eye, (ii) topics of widespread, public interest, and (iii) something of concern to a substantial number of people. Shelton is known both for his prolific county music career and for his role on the hit TV show The Voice. According to the court’s opinion, Shelton self-admittedly jokes about drinking about parts of his act, performance, and shtick with his fans, in order to amuse and get a reaction from his fans. Therefore, according to the court, Shelton’s place in the public eye and his publicly-stated drinking habits appeared to be topics of widespread public interest. Accordingly, the court determined that his lawsuit falls within the province of California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Second Step: Has Shelton Shown A Reasonable Probability Of Prevailing? Court says YES.
Looking to Shelton’s libel per se claim, the court found that Shelton had shown a reasonable probability of prevailing on his claims, sufficient to survive an anti-SLAPP motion. A public figure suing for libel per se need not only show that the statement was defamatory, but must also show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the statement was published with actual malice – i.e. knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. California provides three statutorily-prescribed categories of statements that are libelous on their face, including false and unprivileged publications that have a tendency to injure one in his occupation. See Cal. Civ. Code § 45.
The court identified a number of prior California decisions holding that a false assertion of one’s alcoholism (a necessary predicate to treatment in rehab, according to Shelton) has a tendency to harm that person’s professional reputation, and therefore support a claim for libel per se. Thus, the court determined that falsely stating that someone has entered rehab to treat drinking issues is libelous per se under California law. According to the court, the defendants did not appear to dispute that they did not actually believe, or have reason to believe, that Shelton had actually entered rehab. And the court rejected the defendants’ argument that the magazine cover only “reflect[ed] how those close Shelton ha[d] said he should go to rehab to deal with his” drinking. Rather, the court determined that a reasonably jury could find that the magazine cover – which stated “REHAB for Blake” – asserted that Shelton had entered rehab. Thus, Shelton had sufficiently established falsity and actual malice to survive the anti-SLAPP motion, and the court denied the defendants’ motion as to this claim.
The court summarily rejected the motion as to Shelton’s false light claim. “Having denied defendants’ motion to strike as to [Shelton’s] libel claim, the Court need not undertake a separate analysis for the false light claim, and accordingly denies defendants’ motion as to this claim as well.” (internal citations and quotations omitted).
The court therefore denied the defendants’ motion in its entirety, finding that Shelton had demonstrated a reasonable probability of prevailing on his claims.