Were Planned Parenthood Officials Defamed by Misleading Videos?

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Posted in: Constitutional Law

Planned Parenthood is under fire because of recently released videos showing senior officials seemingly stating prices the organization charges for selling fetal body parts. Pro-life lawmakers in Congress have seized on the videos as evidence of wrongdoing, while Planned Parenthood has responded that the impression created by the videos is false—a product of highly selective and misleading editing. Planned Parenthood claims—quite credibly—that its officials were not stating prices to be paid for illegal sales of fetal tissue but for legal defrayment of costs associated with collecting, storing, and transporting such tissue.

The Planned Parenthood videos may raise important questions of public policy regarding abortion, but I will put those matters aside here to focus on an issue that transcends the particular content of the videos. To what extent does defamation law provide a remedy for people who appear in deliberately misleading audiovisual recordings? Although Planned Parenthood officials have raised questions about whether the Center for Medical Progress (CMP)—the organization behind the videos—filed fraudulent corporate and tax information, there does not appear to be any current plan by Planned Parenthood officials to sue the makers or disseminators of the videos for defamation. But that could change, and even if it does not, the issue will likely recur as other self-appointed citizen-journalists post their work online.

Free Speech, Defamation, and Misleading Editing

Since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, state tort law of defamation has been limited by federal constitutional principles. Under New York Times and subsequent cases, a public official or public figure cannot recover for defamation for a merely false statement. The plaintiff must show that the defendant speaker acted with reckless disregard for the truth or worse. Nonetheless, the case law construing the First Amendment still permits core defamation cases to proceed. Deliberately false statements that damage the plaintiff’s reputation can give rise to liability.

What about selective editing? The Supreme Court case most closely on point is the 1991 ruling in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc. There Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court that the use of quotation marks around statements that the plaintiff did not literally say could be the basis for a successful libel action, so long as the requirements of New York Times were otherwise satisfied. He provided the hypothetical example of “a fabricated quotation of a public official admitting he had been convicted of a serious crime when in fact he had not.”

Does it matter whether the particular quotation is fabricated in its entirety or constructed by selective omissions? It is difficult to see why that distinction should matter.

Suppose Deirdre writes a newspaper article in which she quotes Peter as saying “I committed murder,” when in fact Peter told Deirdre “I never committed murder.” Deirdre should face the same liability as she would face if she wrote that Peter admitted to having committed murder or simply that Peter committed murder. In each case, there is a false statement that causes damage to Peter’s reputation. The deliberate omission of the word “never” is equivalent to a fabrication of the murder admission.

The Masson case involved print, rather than video, but that does not seem like a relevant distinction either. Where the video editing aims at giving the viewer the impression that the persons depicted in the video said something they did not say, it has the same effect as deliberately deceptive print editing. Indeed, the edited video may defame its target more effectively than print because it appears to be a simple record of past events.

Does Simultaneous Dissemination of the Unedited Video Render the Edited Video Protected?

There is, however, one important twist in the Planned Parenthood case. In addition to posting its misleadingly edited videos, CMP has also posted the full, unedited video. Thus, CMP and David Daleiden (the man chiefly behind the videos) could argue that the shorter, edited versions were not meant to mislead but simply to summarize.

Yet that argument should probably fail. For one thing, in addition to the edited and unedited videos, the CMP website contained the statement “Planned Parenthood Uses Partial-Birth Abortions to Sell Baby Parts.” That statement alone could be judged defamatory.

Moreover, even apart from the text, if one version of the video has been intentionally edited to give the false impression that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts (rather than receiving payments in partial defrayment of its costs), and if that video is defamatory standing alone, then the dissemination of the non-defamatory unedited version does not cancel out the defamatory video. To return to our schematic hypothetical example, if Deirdre publishes a defamatory statement that “Peter is a murderer” she cannot escape liability by also publishing a statement saying “Peter is not a murderer.” At most the non-defamatory statement might mitigate damages, as it could reduce the harm to Peter’s reputation.

Finally, traditional tort law recognizes liability for repetition of a defamatory statement. Even if the original posting of the unedited video alongside of the misleadingly edited version somehow eliminated liability for CMP, organizations and individuals who re-posted CMP’s edited video without also posting the unedited version could be liable for the harm caused by what they posted.

Free Speech Protection for Editing

Accordingly, it appears that CMP and other entities and persons could face liability for defamation based on the Planned Parenthood videos. Nonetheless, courts should generally proceed with great caution before finding liability for defamation based on misleading editing.

Although state tort law often provides a remedy for highly misleading as well as outright false statements, there are special dangers for freedom of expression when the misleading is accomplished via editing. Journalists would not be doing their job if they simply dumped all of their raw data into the public domain. Editorial discretion is essential to journalism. Deciding what to exclude from a story is often as important as deciding what to include.

Allowing courts to second-guess journalists’ editorial judgments about inclusion and exclusion would thus pose a grave risk of censorship. In reporting that Donald Trump questioned whether John McCain was a war hero, were journalists under an obligation to report in the same story that McCain had earlier criticized Trump for “fir[ing] up the crazies” with his comments on immigration? If they failed to do so, could they be said to have defamed Trump, by making him look like the sort of person who would launch an unprovoked attack on a war hero? Defamation liability for misleading by omitting context assumes that there is some neutral means of determining what counts as context, but that judgment itself is also an exercise of editorial discretion.

None of this is to say that selective editing could never be the basis for defamation liability. It is to say that courts ought to steer clear of close judgment calls. In the Planned Parenthood case, that might mean letting CMP and others off the hook, but it might not. The federal statute forbidding the sale of organs quite clearly permits defrayment of costs, and the amounts discussed by Planned Parenthood officials in the videos are so low that it is simply false to say that Planned Parenthood profited from sales of fetal organs—as Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Carly Fiorina nonetheless said in response to the first video that surfaced.

Still, even if one regards the Planned Parenthood videos and associated statements as so far over the line between protected opinion and defamatory false statements of fact that they justify civil liability, in general, it is probably the wiser course for the targets of overzealous citizen-journalists to respond through their own counter-speech. Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1927 that “the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” Likewise, in general the fitting remedy for misleading editing is a strong dose of truth.

  • Michael Endersby

    The source video was apparently concurrently released — PP could easily respond with their own “highly edited” and “doctored” 9 minute version to correct the misleading impression they claim. Why not?

  • RandyCrawford

    Roe v. Wade was based on the totally recanted lies of Norma McCorvey. If lies are OK, then courts have no business dealing with perjury one way or another unless they wish to reveal themselves as complete hypocrites. But, as a matter of fact and deed Roe v. Wade amounts to elevating witness perjury to judicial perjury at the highest level, and thus discrediting the U.S. Supreme Court as to both its competence if any and its integrity if any. Similarly, Doe v. Bolton was based on the complete deception of Sandra Cano by her legal team, which pretended to represent her but lied to the court as to her interests while not letting her know how they were manipulating her. Roe v. Wade is also a completely invalid perversion of the U.S. Constitution because it contravenes the Preamble’s requirement to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” where ourselves has a lower-case “o” and Posterity has an upper-case “P” to indicate who is more important. De minimis non curat lex, thus the mass butchery of millions of innocent children is rather more significant a matter than how this or that video is edited. At least the videos were peddling some of the truth some of the time rather than promoting total lies in furtherance of mass murder that exceeds the genocides of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Saddam Hussein combined. If we don’t need to worry about little kids, who are 100% innocent, being chopped into pieces on a massive scale, why should anyone be concerned if the same thing were to happen to busloads of lawyers? At least more than a few of the lawyers are already guilty of something or another. There is already considerable doubt as to whether certain lawyers are persons anyway, and how to deal with them can be justified by the penumbra of the U.S. Constitution.

    • Joe Paulson

      Roe v. Wade was a class action and the law in Texas barred abortion even in cases of rape, which “Roe” did not claim occurred in her legal pleadings even though she suggested it once to her lawyers.

  • A J MacDonald Jr

    sales + legal defrayment of costs = semantic loophole

  • I suppose one problem with Professor Dorf’s conclusion that there is misleading going on is that, well, he seems to be misleading on an important point.

    Is there an an exchange of the heart, kidney, testes, for money?

    The PP answer, of course, is “NO.” That’s the answer it must give, as “selling” the parts would appear to violate federal law.

    PP’s answer, instead, is, “we provide the tissue without charge” and the biomedical companies simply reimburse the costs of collecting, preserving in stable media, and shipping or delivery of same.

    Yet, there is that question of what “selling” means, or, as a President might have said, “That all depends on what the meaning of ‘selling’ is.”

    • Michael Crichton

      Did you miss this part: The federal statute forbidding the sale of organs quite clearly permits defrayment of costs? You can make all the semantic arguments you like, the law recognizes a difference.

  • Darin Clements

    were not stating prices to be paid for illegal sales of fetal tissue but for legal defrayment of costs……….. Call it what you want, the fact remains that there is tangible value to them.

  • Pamela Shuman

    There’s one very good reason they will not sue for defamation. There was no defamation. CMP’s videos portray exactly what happens in these PP clinics and the executives were recorded saying what they said and meaning what they said. In other words, CMP has given us “a strong dose of truth” about Planned Parenthood.

  • Caleb

    The reckless disregard CMP engaged in was leading the audience to a conclusion that PP was doing ‘illegal’ things. That was done by calling things PP was legally allowed to do as ‘illegal’. Here untruthful statements were willfully used with intent to defame. When one introduces untruthful statements (lies) in the act of LEADING a conclusion that the untruthful statements are ‘true’. That is an act of defamation. This has less to do with the video edits and more to do with the statements (written) CMP makes such as PP ‘illegally sells baby parts for profit’.

    Also, (I think) a defamation case could be made stronger if it’s predicated on another case where it’s established intent to defraud IN ORDER to produce the videos and to then lead the audience to the CONCLUSION they were evidence of ‘illegally selling baby parts’. For example if PP (or other similar) could first pursue CMP on grounds that they defrauded the IRS when filing for their company or anything like that. There one (I think) could RELATE findings of fraud with intent to commit more fraud–make fraudulent damaging statements in order to defame.

    When CMP filed for non profit status, where the IRS has a separate ‘code’ for pro life/anti abortion groups, CMP did not choose that one. But instead for something quite different. They stated a different purpose and initially also stated similar purpose on their website. In the event they had a ‘donate’ button for the falsely stated purpose and got $$ for that, it’s fraud.

    More fraud would come into play with the generation of fake IDs or identity theft. There is one point in the video (if you slow down and magnify) where the woman pays with a credit card that happens to be in the name of David D’s high school class mate who was a feminist. But the woman in the video, David D’s partner gives a different name. An investigative journalist has already made contact with a woman of the name on the CC who was David D’s class mate. She reported that she had a hard time when trying to even look at her credit report.

    That said, I think they would have a strong case for defamation after they establish FRAUD in the company set up process of CMP and pursue on grounds of CMPs wanton fraudulent statements used to lead the audience to the conclusion PP was ‘illegally selling baby parts’ via the fraudulent statements CMP used to say just that. One would not want to ‘hinge’ the case solely on grounds of how they edited it.

  • helen754

    though the video is not currently in the news, how many old Hallelujah boys have I met who want those stem cells that will make them young again so they can use their you know what. I well remember lots of old farts from the Church of God who in their 70’s and 80’s wanted replacement of hearts, bypasses with other peoples veins, etc. yet they wanted to see Jesus when they sang on Sunday… The fetal tissue not parts can be used for three dimensional studies of diseases and cures in a manner that can not be done with petri dishes. If you do not understand what that means, then I guess you will be voting for the just barely graduated from High School candidate Walker for president. You do not have to be a MENSA member to understand that if a woman is able to obtain an early abortion no ‘parts’ exist. And a late term abortion may save some kid from being a thug after spending years in multiple foster homes.