Supreme Court Rules That Reports to TSA Are Protected Speech Which Cannot Become the Subject of a Defamation Suit

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]”.

Our Chicago defamation, slander, libel, cyberbullying and First Amendment attorneys concentrate in this area of the law. We have defended or prosecuted a number of defamation and libel cases, including cases representing a consumer sued by a large luxury used car dealer in federal court for hundreds of negative internet reviews and videos which resulted in substantial media coverage of the suit; one of Loyola University’s largest contributors when the head basketball coach sued him for libel after he was fired; and a lawyer who was falsely accused of committing fraud with the false allegation published to the Dean of the University of Illinois School of Law, where the lawyer attended law school and the President of the University of Illinois. One of our partners also participated in representing a high profile athlete against a well-known radio shock jock.

Our Chicago defamation lawyers defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern. Our Chicago Cybersquatting attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Lake Forest and Vernon Hills, who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating sites and pretend consumer rating sites that are simply forums to falsely bash or business clients. We have also represented and defended consumers First Amendment and free speech rights to criticize businesses who are guilty of consumer fraud and false advertising.

Super Lawyers named Chicago and Oak Brook business trial attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation, and Consumer Rights Litigation. Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business trial lawyers have over a quarter of a century of experience in litigating complex class action, consumer rights, and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business law suits involving injunctions, and TROS, defamation, libel and covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud or defamatory attacks on their business and reputations.

Lubin Austermuehle’s Arlington Hts and Schaumburg litigation attorneys have more than two and half decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state business laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Oak Brook, near Elgin, Aurora, and Naperville, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest.

If you are the victim of a defamatory attack on your business or a consumer who has been sued to stop you from posting criticism of a business online at Yelp or anywhere else, contact one of our Oak Brook and Chicago defamation lawyers for a free consultation at 630-333-0333 or by filling out our contact us form at the side of this blog.

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