Federal judge rules that a headline calling someone a ‘spy’ can be protected opinion

Is it permissible to call someone an Iranian spy if the facts are somewhat more nuanced than that? Apparently the answer is yes — at least according to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs.

Burroughs recently dismissed a libel claim brought in Boston by Kaveh Afrasiabi against United Press International and Struan Stevenson, writing that an article written by Stevenson, whose headline referred to Afrasiabi as an “Iranian spy,” was a matter of clearly labeled opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment. I learned about the case from Adam Gaffin, who wrote about it at Universal Hub last Friday.

There are a lot of fascinating details in Burroughs’ opinion. Most of it is based on long-settled law that opinion is protected as long as there is some factual support for it, or if it cannot be proven true or false. Afrasiabi’s complaint was based on the headline, “Iranian spy arrested by FBI was wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Burroughs found that “wolf in sheep’s clothing” was pure opinion, whereas the reference to him as a spy was a matter of opinion grounded at least in part in the factual record as well as because the entire piece was opinion.

“Although the term ‘spy’ is arguably capable of being proved false, the phrase ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ plainly is not,” she wrote. “Given that the term ‘Iranian spy’ is followed by ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ the entire headline, read together as it must be, is clearly a statement of opinion.”

Moreover, Afrasiabi has been charged with failing to register with the U.S. government under the terms of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Afrasiabi has asserted that he never engaged in espionage against the United States.

As Gaffin observes, the judge’s ruling also references a Boston Herald case involving the suicide of Brad Delp, lead singer of the band Boston, which found that you can’t go looking for nuance in headlines. Quoting from that decision, she wrote: “A newspaper need not choose the most delicate word available in constructing its headline; it is permitted some drama in grabbing its reader’s attention, so long as the headline remains a fair index of what is accurately reported below.”

Here is the heart of Judge Burroughs’ decision, which found that Stevenson laid out the facts, allowing readers to determine whether they agreed with the headline or not:

Because Mr. Stevenson accurately presented the facts surrounding Dr. Afrasiabi’s background, arrest, and criminal charges in the Article, neither he nor UPI can be held liable for defamation based on his opinion that those facts render Dr. Afrasiabi an “Iranian spy” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” … Put slightly differently, because the Article permits the reader to form his or her own opinion about whether the facts presented make Dr. Afrasiabi a “spy” and/or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the statement is not actionable.

Finally: What, may you ask, is UPI these days? Does it have anything to do with the UPI of the 20th century, which for decades was The Associated Press’ main rival? The answer is no, not really.

According to Wikipedia, which seems to have the most up-to-date information, UPI today is part of News World Communications, which in turn was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. News World used to own The Washington Times as well, but that paper is now owned by a different Moon entity.

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