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Scottie Pippen was named one of the NBA's top 50 greatest players, and won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. His stellar athletic career ended in 2004 and he followed up with endorsement deals, basketball analysis and ... a few bad investments.
Pippen tried to mitigate his financial losses by suing his former legal and financial advisors, who he felt gave him bad advice. The media heard of his financial troubles and reported that Pippen had filed for Bankruptcy, which he had not. Pippen believes that his career went from all net, to down the tubes. He claims his opportunities for endorsement deals diminished because of these falsehoods and sued NBC for defamation and a claim of false light under Illinois law.
The district court thought Pippen's claims were nothing but hoop dreams, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
Defamation Per Se
Of the five types of defamation per se, only two were relevant to Pippen's case: (1) statements about one's lack of skill and integrity that will prevent the person from doing a good job; or (2) prejudicial statements about a person's suitability for a profession.
Here, the court found that Pippen did not meet these requirements. A statement that someone is bankrupt does not reflect on their ability to endorse products or perform basketball analysis. In addressing the link between financial savvy and professional ability, Judge Easterbrook stated: "Reports of personal bankruptcy would not so impugn his job performance that they necessarily constitute defamation."
Defamation Per Quod & False Light Claim
Because Pippen is a public figure, the New York Times v. Sullivan standard of actual malice applies -- that is Pippen must prove that "defendants either knew the statements to be false or were recklessly indifferent to whether they are true or false." Here, the court noted that failure to investigate and failure to retract a false statement (once learned), do not rise to the actual malice standard.
Pippen also argued that the single publication rule, protecting speakers/writers from threats of repeated litigation from the reprint of one item, should not apply to Internet publications. The Seventh Circuit noted that Illinois courts had not addressed this question, and instead relied on other state and federal courts around the county in coming to the same conclusion: the single publication rule applies to the Internet. The court disagreed with Pippen because the threat of continuous exposure is precisely the reason the rule was established.
New York Times v. Sullivan In the Tabloid Age
Considering the growing intensity of the spotlight on celebrities and their personal lives, together with the expansiveness of the digital age and social media, it's surprising we don't have more lawsuits like Pippen. New types of media call for an evolving interpretation of the law. It's only a matter of time before we'll need some more guidance from the federal courts on how to handle these tricky situations.