The Supreme Court on Friday refused to hear an appeal from an Albanian who said the book that became the movie “War Dogs” wrongly linked him to arms dealers.
Judge Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken up the case in order to reconsider the legal protection to be afforded to journalists and publishers in the age of social media.
Shkelzen Berisha, the son of the former Albanian prime minister, sued author Guy Lawson for libel over his book “Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became the Most Likely Gunrunners in History”, claiming to tell the real story of how three young people became international arms dealers. As the plot unfolded, the three became involved with the Albanian Mafia, portraying Berisha as a key figure in the organization.
Lawson sold the rights to the film to Warner Bros., and the book became the movie “War Dogs”, starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller.
The lower federal courts said that because Berisha was a public figure, he was required to show not only that the statements were false, but also that they were made with genuine malice. The decisions cited the landmark Supreme Court case in the civil rights era, New York Times v. Sullivan.
Under this ruling, public figures can only prevail in defamation suits by proving that the person who made the statements knew they were false or acted recklessly in disregard of the truth.
Thomas previously wrote that the court should review the decision. He was joined in the latter case by Gorsuch, who said the media landscape had changed dramatically since the court ruled on the Sullivan case in 1964.
“Today virtually anyone in this country can post virtually anything for immediate consumption virtually anywhere in the world,” he wrote. “Everyone carries a soapbox in their hands.”
The climate of the 1960s, in which relatively few news organizations followed traditional journalistic standards, has changed. The Sullivan decision “has turned into a rock-solid grant for the publication of lies in ways and on a scale previously unimaginable,” Gorsuch said.