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Liberian Warlord Label Wasn’t Defamatory

(CN) - A writer for the Atlantic Monthly should not face defamation claims over his description of George Boley as a Liberian "warlord," a federal judge ruled, citing various reports corroborating that status.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has confirmed that it deported Boley from the United States in 2012, two years after it took him into custody and charging him "with numerous extrajudicial killings in Liberia," and with the "recruitment or use of child soldiers in Liberia," according to the ruling.

During Liberia's controversial civil war in the 1990s, Boley served as chairman of the Liberia Peace Council. Despite that organization's name, the State Department said Boley has not denied credible allegations that he used his position on the council to "authorize[] the summary execution of seven of his fighters November 14 for harassment of civilians," the ruling states.

Boley also served Liberia as minister of state, minister of education, and minister of post and telecommunications.

He sued Atlantic Monthly and national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg in January 2013 over two articles that ran online in 2010 after ICE had arrested Boley.

"Some news out of New York," Golberg's first article stated, as quoted in the complaint. "George Boley, a warlord I first met when covering the Liberian civil war in the mid-90s, and who later moved to New York, was arrested January 15th by U.S. Immigration and Customs and is now sitting in a jail cell in upstate Batavia. So far, he's being charged administratively, with lying in order to gain entry into the U.S., and with committing extrajudicial killings while in another country. Other branches of Homeland Security, I've been told, are looking at charging him with actual war crimes, which is a good thing, because he belongs in the Hague with his fellow warlord, Charles Taylor. ... I knew, from firsthand observation, that his organization, the grossly misnamed Liberian Peace Council, recruited and armed child soldiers; fed them drugs; and ordered them to rape and kill."

In the second article discussing an alleged relationship between Liberian figure Charles Taylor and the Rev. Pat Robertson, Goldberg wrote: "You should pardon the expression, but, Christ. Charles Taylor is an evil man, more evil than my own personal Liberian warlord George Boley. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by Pat Robertson, but this is fairly unbelievable."

The Atlantic Monthly and Goldberg moved to dismiss Boley's federal complaint in Washington, arguing that their comments were protected under the District of Columbia's Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation Act of 2010, or the Anti-SLAPP Act, which "authorizes the preliminary dismissal of meritless defamation lawsuits challenging speech on matters of public concern."

They had also sought dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), but

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said Tuesday that the Anti-SLAPP law sufficed.

Citing reports from ICE, the court found that Golberg's statements are protected by the fair report privilege.

Boley also "cherry-picked" Goldberg's comments and took them out of context, according to the ruling.

Goldberg's full article noted that he had become involved in a 2008 complaint Boley filed against Advocates for Human Rights. That Minnesota nonprofit had subpoenaed Goldberg to testify against Boley in his defamation lawsuit against it.

Goldberg described Boley's 2008 lawsuit as "the definition of chutzpah," unaware that doing so would prompt Boley to also sue him for defamation.

Boley's Minnesota suit was dismissed weeks before Goldberg wrote about it in 2010.

"Viewed in context, then, Goldberg's allegedly defamatory statement merely described an affidavit he submitted in an official proceeding, i.e., a civil lawsuit filed by Boley," Walton wrote. "The fair report privilege applies to summaries of statements made in connection with judicial proceedings, even when it is the defendant's summary of his own prior testimony. And Goldberg's statement fairly and accurately described his affidavit with proper attribution to the court document. Thus, the statement is protected by the fair report privilege."

Though Goldberg exceeded the bounds of fair report by saying that Boley "belongs in the Hague," Walton said the remark still qualifies under the "fair comment" privilege.

Similarly, Goldberg's characterization of Boley as "evil" and a "warlord" are not defamatory, as they are "imaginative expression," unverifiable by fact, and thus protected by the First Amendment, according to the ruling.

Boley additionally failed to prove actual malice on the part of the defendants. Specifically, Boley never denied that he is, in fact, a warlord.

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