Sixth Circuit affirms dismissal of defamation claims brought against Viacom by former American Idol contestants, holding that Tennessee’s “single publication rule” applies to online speech and thus majority of allegedly defamatory statements were made prior to one-year statute of limitations period, and that few statements falling within limitations period were not actionably false.

Corey Clark and Jaered Andrews were each disqualified by non-party FOX Broadcasting Company (Fox) from participating on the television show American Idol in 2002 for supposedly withholding information about criminal charges against them in separate incidents. Clark and Andrews sued Viacom and Jim Cantiello, an MTV writer, in 2012, 10 years later, for defamation-related claims over statements in several MTV and VH1 online news articles that referenced the disqualifications. The district court denied in part plaintiffs’ motion to file a second amended complaint, concluding that, with respect to certain allegedly defamatory statements, amendment would be futile because the additional claims depended upon statements that had occurred outside the applicable Tennessee statute of limitations period—within one year of the date the alleged defamatory statement is published. The district court did allow plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint with respect to “undisputed timely claim[s],” and plaintiffs did so. The district court subsequently dismissed the second amended complaint, finding that the statements in question were not actionably false.

The Sixth Circuit first addressed whether the district court properly denied in part Clark’s and Andrews’ motion to file their proposed second amended complaint. On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, Clark and Andrews first argued that their claims were not barred by the statute of limitations because the defamatory statements caused “continuous wrong” to them. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, holding that Tennessee law clearly did not recognize “continuous defamation.”

The plaintiffs also argued that the one-year statute of limitations did not bar their claims because the so-called single publication rule—under which any mass communication (such as a television broadcast or a single edition of a book, newspaper or periodical) that is made at approximately one time is construed as a single publication of the statements it contains, giving rise to only one cause of action as of the moment of initial publication—does not apply to online statements. Instead, plaintiffs argued, the “multiple publication rule”—under which a defamatory statement is deemed “published” whenever it is transmitted to a third party—should apply. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, noting that, in 1973, Tennessee formally recognized that the “multiple publication rule was out of sync with modern mass communication technologies and joined the majority of other states in adopting the ‘single publication rule.’” The court stated that it would be highly unusual for Tennessee law not to apply the single publication rule to online statements given the fact that the state recognizes the rule in the print context. The Sixth Circuit also noted that several other jurisdictions have observed that the single publication rule makes more sense in the online context than in the traditional print media context.

Plaintiffs also argued that, even if the single-publication rule were to apply, the one-year limitations period has been continuously reset because Viacom has repeatedly republished the allegedly defamatory statements on its websites.

Acknowledging that republication could occur if the delivery of the online statement is intentionally changed to enable it to be consumed by a wider audience than before, the court pointed out that the statements at issue were initially posted to a prominent, publicly accessible news website and had not been substantively altered in any way that would have a measurable effect on the audience reached. The court also noted that the republication doctrine does not apply where audience attention is directed toward the preexisting dissemination of the allegedly defamatory statements, such as through hyperlinks, website updates or interface redesigns, since these changes don’t demonstrate the ability or the intent to attract a wider audience than the initial publication of the online statement.

With respect to three remaining defamation claims that fell within the statute of limitations period, the Sixth Circuit agreed with Viacom and the district court that the complaint failed to plausibly allege falsity. The court found that the plaintiffs had failed to recognize the limited nature of the statements in the articles. Plaintiffs had theorized that Fox improperly disqualified them from American Idol. Instead of suing Fox, plaintiffs sued Viacom for repeating Fox’s alleged falsehood. The court held that the only way that Viacom’s statements could have been false were if Viacom had misreported Fox’s rationale for disqualifying the plaintiffs. The court noted that it was improper for the district court to find that the statements were objectively true, a function properly left to a jury. Nonetheless, the court agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the remaining claims as the complaint contradicted itself by acknowledging that Fox had made the statements accurately reported by Viacom.