ATLANTA (CN) — The Trump campaign’s libel lawsuit against CNN over an opinion article about Russian election interference was thrown out Thursday by a federal judge who found the campaign did not prove the network knowingly disregarded the truth.
The lawsuit filed in Atlanta federal court in March is centered on an op-ed written by CNN contributor Larry Noble last year. Referring to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Noble wrote: “The Trump campaign assessed the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020 and has decided to leave that option on the table.”
Suing various CNN entities, the president’s campaign claims Noble’s statement was “defamatory and false, and at the time of publication, defendants knew it was false.”
In an 18-page ruling issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael L. Brown wrote that the Trump campaign’s “analysis of legal authority contains several errors.”
Georgia abides by the doctrine of lex loci delicti, “which provides that a tort action is governed by substantive law of the state where the tort was committed,” according to the ruling. The Trump campaign contended that the publication of the op-ed occurred in Atlanta, where CNN is headquartered.
Pointing out that the campaign’s place of incorporation is in Virginia and most of its operations are based in New York, Brown decided to apply New York law to the libel claim.
The judge, citing the Second Circuit’s ruling in Palin v. New York Times, said that a public figure like Trump “must also prove that ‘an allegedly libelous statement was made with actual malice, that is, made ‘with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’”
Under New York law, “only statements of fact—as opposed to statements of opinion—can be actionable” as defamation, Brown wrote, and courts should make a ruling “based on what the average person hearing or reading the communication would take it to mean.”
Brown, a Trump appointee, rejected CNN’s argument that Noble’s sentence about 2020 interference cannot reasonably be understood as an assertion of provably false facts.
“A reasonable reader could readily understand the first part as alleging a weighing of the risks and benefits,” the ruling states. “It has a precise meaning.”
The judge also disagreed with CNN’s contention that the “left on the table” portion of the statement is “couched in figurative, imprecise language, and thus is not actionable under New York law.”
“While ‘left on the table’ is figurative language, it is also precise language,” Brown wrote. “A reasonable reader could readily understand it to mean ‘available for consideration.’”
But the judge sided with CNN on a third factor, noting the disclaimer at the top of Noble’s op-ed clearly stated it was an opinion piece. Paragraphs before and after the statement at issue also contain “softening language which signals to readers that they are not reading a factual account,” Brown wrote.
Words like “versions” and “imagined” are used throughout the piece. In addition, the word “may” appears in each sentence before the statement on 2020 interference, and the following paragraph uses the phrase “let’s hope.”
“Both phrases signal that Mr. Noble is expressing his opinion,” the ruling states.
Trump’s campaign had also alleged Noble had a “record of malice and bias against the president” based on previous articles and a tweet that said, “Trump cheats and lies, and when caught, lies again and claims the right to make the rules. He claims defeats as victories, takes credit for anyone’s success and blames his failures on others.”
But Brown found that CNN succeeded in proving the statement at issue was not made with actual malice.
“The tweet might show Mr. Noble’s ill will towards the president, but it fails to plead actual malice in the constitutional sense – that is, does not show Mr. Noble made the statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false,” the judge wrote.
The Trump campaign and CNN did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.