After criticizing former President George W. Bush, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, learned that the marketplace can impose a heavy economic cost on those who speak publicly about controversial issues. In 2007, one of the subjects of Maines’ public comments attempted to use the courts to exact a legal cost as well by suing her for defamation, false light and outrage. Fortunately for Maines, the First Amendment came to her rescue when a federal district court in Arkansas granted her motion for summary judgment.
The events underlying the case began in May 2007, when Maines watched two HBO documentaries about the case of the “West Memphis Three” (WM3), which refers to the murder prosecution of three teenagers who were accused and convicted of brutally killing three eight-year-olds in the early 1990s. Inspired by what she saw, Maines became convinced that the WM3 were innocent and prepared a letter that she posted on her website asking her fans to donate to a legal defense fund. The problem, however, was that the letter suggested that Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, was the actual murderer.
Hobbs took particular offense to Maines’ involvement in the case and brought suit against her. Interestingly, by doing so, Hobbs provided Maines with an opportunity to investigate the murders herself, as her lawyers were allowed to depose Hobbs regarding his whereabouts on the night of the murders, his contacts with the victims and other matters. The WM3 are now using the deposition transcripts to support their claims of innocence and are hailing Maines as a “hero.” Ultimately, however, the defamation case did not turn on whether Hobbs was guilty of murder.
During the summary judgment proceedings, Hobbs’s sought to avoid the “actual malice” standard, which would require him to prove that Maines spoke with subjective knowledge that her statements were false or with reckless disregard of their falsity. Hobbs needed to win the issue because his purported evidence of actual malice was virtually non-existent. Accordingly, the court focused on two issues regarding whether Hobbs could be classified as a limited purpose public figure.
Hobbs’ first argument was that there was no “public controversy” because, in his view, the case had no impact on anyone other than the direct participants – the victims and the accused. In making this argument, Hobbs had to acknowledge that there had been extensive press regarding the case. Indeed, he argued that the facts were similar to the Supreme Court case, Time, Inc. v. Firestone. In Firestone, the Court held that extensive public interest in the divorce of the “scion of one of America’s wealthier industrial families” was not the sort of public controversy that merited heightened constitutional concern. Without identifying where the line is drawn, the district court rejected Hobbs’ comparison, holding that the commission of crime and the prosecutions that result from it are “without question” legitimate public controversies, even if a divorce is not.
Hobbs’ second argument was that he was a mere private figure in a public controversy. He acknowledged that he had done some press interviews, but claimed that he was entitled to defend himself after being defamed. Again, the court rejected his argument based upon the timing and purpose of Hobbs’ interactions with the press. Specifically, the court found that Hobbs took advantage of his access to the press prior to Maines’ statements by, for example, selling his life rights to a film company and attempting to sell his journal as a book. Having done so, Hobbs forfeited any claim to private figure status with respect to the WM3 case.
Having resolved the above questions against Hobbs, the district court concluded that Hobbs was a limited purpose public figure and, because he had no evidence of actual malice, granted Maines’ summary judgment motion. With her court victory in hand, Maines can continue to speak out on public issues of concern to the Dixie Chicks and can be comfortable that, if there is a price to be paid for doing so, it will be in the marketplace, not in the courts.