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Right-wing activist who spread conspiracy theories over DNC staffer’s death loses defamation appeal

Matt Couch failed to plausibly state any claims of actual malice in his defamation suit against a podcaster, a three-judge panel ruled.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A D.C. Circuit panel ruled against a right-wing commentator on Friday, affirming a federal judge’s decision to dismiss his defamation suit against an investigative journalist who on his podcast covered conspiracy theories he spread about the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Matt Couch had claimed that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered after stealing emails that showed the DNC favored Hillary Clinton over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and sold them to WikiLeaks. Couch accused Rich’s family of trying to cover up his murder.

A three-judge panel agreed that Couch failed to plausibly state any claims in his suit against the defendants: Michael Isikoff, chief investigative reporter for Yahoo! News, whose podcast series “ConspiracyLand” focused on the fringe theory that Hillary Clinton ordered Rich to be killed; Verizon, the former parent company of Yahoo! News; and National Public Radio.

Couch failed to plausibly state defamation claims against any of the defendants, U.S. Circuit Judge Justin Walker wrote in 16-page opinion. The panel agreed with the lower court ruling in favor of NPR, denying Couch leave to file an amended complaint and dismissing the case without prejudice.

Walker, a Trump appointee, was joined by the Obama-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Cornelia Pillard and Biden-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Bradley Garcia.

In two of the podcast episodes, Izikoff discussed Couch specifically and the role he played in spreading conspiracy theories about Rich. Izikoff interviewed Rich’s friend Joe Capone and neighbor Mark Mueller, who both accused Couch of harassing them and trying to blame them for Rich’s death.

Mueller — no relation to former special counsel Robert Mueller who led the Russia investigation — called Couch his “chief tormentor” and accused him, in turn, of involvement in Rich’s death, according to Isikoff’s reporting. The podcaster also discussed the series on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, prompting NPR's inclusion as a defendant.

Couch couldn't show the statements about him were made with actual malice — a "daunting standard, Walker wrote, to which Couch was subjected because he conceded he's a limited public figure with an X, formerly Twitter, account with over 724,000 followers. 

In his suit, Couch identified 14 supposedly defamatory statements. Walker divided them into two categories. 

The first includes eight statements where Isikoff allegedly accused Couch of tying Capone and Mueller to the murder or accused Couch of harassment. Each instance was on one of Isikoff’s two episodes discussing Couch, where he either quotes the two men verbatim or paraphrases them.

“Couch has not alleged the existence of some smoking-gun evidence that would show Isikoff knew these statements were false, nor has he offered specific allegations of why Isikoff might have ‘obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of’ Capone and Mueller’s accounts,” Walker wrote. 

The second category Walker identified includes six statements that are Isikoff’s descriptions of Couch: “internet conspiracy entrepreneur,” “internet troll,” “internet crankster,” “internet bully,” “member of the alt-right” and “associate of a Southern confederate.” 

Leon held that Couch had no evidence to show those statements were made with actual malice, but in the alternative, they would fail to qualify as false because they are opinions, not a verifiable fact. 

Walker agreed with the alternative explanation and affirmed the dismissal based on those grounds.

In a statement posted to X, Isikoff applauded the panel's decision to bring an end to over four years of litigation, calling it a "victory for the First Amendment and the truth."

Couch did not respond to a request for comment.

During oral arguments in October, Couch’s lawyer, Eden Quinton, argued that U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, a George W. Bush appointee, set a bad standard by requiring clear and convincing evidence that Isikoff knew he was wrong in linking Couch to the conspiracy theory at the outset of the case. He proposed his own analysis for the claims — one that Walker declined to address in the panel ruling, finding the actual malice standard sufficient.

In 2018, Seth Rich's brother Aaron Rich sued Couch, along with Couch's fellow right-wing activist Ed Butowsky and the Washington Times. The parties settled and Couch apologized to Rich for his involvement in spreading the theories. 

Follow @Ryan_Knappy
Categories / First Amendment, National, Politics

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