While the law can protect citizens against defamation, there are limits to the kinds of statements which are considered defamatory. Generally speaking, a statement must be made publicly in order to be actionable under defamation law. Under most circumstances, any reports that an airline makes to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have immunity from defamation lawsuits. Despite this fact, William Hoeper, a former pilot for Air Wisconsin, filed a defamation lawsuit against the airline for making a report to the TSA which stated that they were concerned about his mental stability and that he may be armed.
The airline filed a report after Hoeper failed a final flight simulator test which he needed to pass in order to continue working for the airline. Hoeper admits that, upon his failure, he tossed his headset, exchanged words “at an elevated decible level”, and accused the instructor of creating an unrealistic test. As a pilot, Hoeper was authorized to carry a gun and airline officials worried that he would be able to bypass security while carrying a weapon.
Because it is in the public’s best interest for airlines to report suspicious behavior to the TSA, airlines are granted immunity from defamation lawsuits when filing these reports. Only if the airline makes these reports with reckless disregard for the truth can it be held accountable under relevant defamation law. The Colorado Supreme Court found that, in this instance, the airline did not have immunity and so it awarded Hoeper $1.2 million in damages.
The decision was appealed and the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The Supreme Court found that, because the airline’s report to the TSA was not materially false, the airline still had immunity regarding that report. The Court therefore reversed the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion where he partially disagreed with the Court’s ruling. He argued that the case should have been remanded for further proceedings once it was determined that the material falsity standard was applicable in this case. He also argued that the award for damages could be justified given the report’s association of Hoeper’s conduct with mental illness.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed, arguing that fretting over word choice could delay reports of suspicious behavior to the TSA. Sotomayor also pointed out in her majority opinion that Hoeper “cannot dispute the literal truth of the airline’s report to the TSA, leaving him with no room to sue for defamation. She further wrote that the statement that the airline’s supervisors were concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability conveyed the gist of the situation.
Sotomayor took issue with Scalia’s assertion that Hoeper’s “display of anger” made him no more of a threat than “millions of perfectly harmless travelers.” Sotomayor argued that “Hoeper did not just lose his temper, he lost it in circumstances that he knew would lead to his firing, which he regarded as the culmination of a vendetta against him. And he was not just any passenger; he was [authorized to carry a firearm]”.