Appeals court rejects defamation suit by right-wing journalist against NPR, Yahoo News

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Ken Lund via Flickr

The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Friday that a self-described investigative journalist did not provide enough proof that NPR and other news providers defamed him.

Matthew Couch, founder of the D.C. Patriot, a right-wing news website, had claimed in an August 2020 lawsuit that the Yahoo News podcast Conspiracyland defamed him in 16 statements about his theories about the 2016 murder of Seth Rich in Washington, D.C.

The suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in separate decisions in 2021 and 2022. Couch appealed in September 2023.

Police found that Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee employee, had been the victim of a robbery gone wrong. But Couch and other commentators theorized that he was killed for leaking emails earlier in 2016 that showed the DNC preferred Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

Fact-checking websites PolitiFact, Snopes and have said such claims are false and unfounded. Couch later retracted his statements about Rich and apologized to Rich’s family.

In the first six episodes of Conspiracyland, Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff debunked conspiracy theories about Rich’s death. He and his guests called Couch a “conspiracy entrepreneur,” “troll,” “crankster” and “bully.” 

Isikoff also appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air to discuss the podcast and repeated his statements that Couch was spreading conspiracy theories.

Couch sued NPR, Isikoff and Verizon Communications Inc., then owner of Yahoo News, for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other claims. He also sued Verizon and NPR for negligent supervision, arguing that they failed to prevent their journalists from spreading false information, and for not firing Isikoff and Fresh Air host Terry Gross. He sought $75 million in damages.

The district court dismissed the claims against Verizon and Isikoff in September 2021 and the claims against NPR in July 2022.

Couch appealed the ruling in September 2023, asking the appeals court to rule on the district court judge’s decision to deny him permission to file an amended complaint. In a unanimous decision issued Friday, appeals court Judge Justin R. Walker affirmed the two district court judgments and the decision not to grant an amendment.

In district court, Couch had conceded that he was a “limited-purpose public figure,” meaning that his fame and power are not pervasive outside of this “particular public controversy.” He therefore had to prove that the defendants acted with “actual malice,” a standard that the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. “famously ‘daunting’” in a 2021 opinion.

The standard “requires Couch to ultimately prove, by ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ that the allegedly defamatory statements were made with either actual ‘knowledge’ that the statements were ‘false,’ or ‘reckless disregard’ of the statements’ accuracy,” Walker wrote. The “reckless disregard” standard would further require NPR and its co-defendants to have had “a high degree of awareness of probable falsity” or had “entertained serious doubts” about the truth of their statements, he wrote.

Additionally, public figures — unlike private people — must prove that the defendants knew the statements were untrue or that they “recklessly published their statements while subjectively knowing” the statements were likely false, Walker said.

To sustain his case in district court, Couch needed to allege “sufficient facts to plausibly state his claim,” Walker said. But, the judge wrote, “He has not done so.”

“[W]hen a district court denies [a motion] because of futility, this means the district court examined the proposed amended complaint and concluded that even with the new factual allegations, [Couch] still failed to state a valid claim,” Walker wrote.

The appeals panel found that Couch lacked claims against Verizon or NPR because they made no separate statements but “merely published Isikoff’s statements.”

Couch also did not establish enough evidence against Isikoff to show that he had viable claims against the reporter, so “the district court properly granted judgment to all three defendants regarding defamation and properly denied [permission] to amend Couch’s complaint for futility,” Walker wrote.

Couch’s other claims apart from defamation also failed because they were derived from the defamation claim, the judge said. 

Couch can still appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His attorney did not immediately respond to Current’s requests for information.

Couch’s attorney said in an email to Current Tuesday that he plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This article has been updated with the response from Couch’s attorney.

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