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Court Allows Police Officers To Proceed With Their Defamation Claim Based On City Councilmember’s Statements
In February 2016, Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding, two police officers in the City of Seattle, Washington, shot and killed Che Taylor, a Black man, while attempting to make an arrest. A few days after the shooting, Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council, told a crowd in front of the Seattle Police Department: “The brutal murder of Che Taylor, just a blatant murder at the hands of the police, show[s] how urgently we need to keep building our movement for basic human rights for black people and brown people.” Sawant called for the Seattle Police Department to be held “accountable for their reprehensible actions, individual actions. We need justice on the individual actions and we need to turn the tide on the systemic police brutality and racial profiling.” In June 2017, following the fatal shooting of another person of color, Sawant repeated her allegation that “Taylor was murdered by the police.”
In 2018, Miller and Spaulding filed an action against Sawant, claiming that she had defamed them by falsely accusing them of racial profiling and murder. Although Sawant did not identify the officers by name in her comments, they alleged that their families, friends, colleagues, and members of the public all knew that they were the officers who shot Taylor. The officers alleged that Sawant’s remarks were thus “of and concerning” them, as required to state a claim for defamation under Washington law.
The district court dismissed the officers’ defamation claims on the ground that their complaint failed to plausibly allege that Sawant’s remarks were “of and concerning” them. Specifically, the district court concluded that Sawant’s statements did not target the officers, but rather spoke to broader issues of police accountability.
The officers appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Ninth Circuit noted that although Sawant’s remarks appeared to be aimed in part at the police generally, some of her words referred specifically to the officers who shot Taylor, including her reference to the “individual actions” taken. The Ninth Circuit noted that this language suggested that Sawant was singling out Miller and Spaulding—characterizing them as murderers and calling for them to be held individually accountable.
The Ninth Circuit also noted that some who heard the remarks may have understood Sawant’s remarks as communicating criticism of police generally, but stated that the officers plausibly alleged that their family, friends, and community understood the comments to be directed at Miller and Spaulding. They were the only police officers involved in the shooting, and the only “police” to whom the statements could apply. Thus, the officers’ allegations met the “of and concerning” standard under Washington law.
Sawant alleged that she could not be held liable, even if readers and listeners reasonably understood her remarks to refer to the two officers, because she was not responsible for making their identities public. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, noting that no applicable case authority distinguishes between information acquired from the speaker of the alleged defamatory remarks and information acquired from other sources in the context of a viable defamation claim.
Sawant also alleged that allowing police officers to file defamation claims based on the knowledge and conclusions of friends, families, and colleagues of those officers will allow officers to silence critics of law enforcement. The Ninth Circuit again disagreed, noting that case authority is clear that defamation claims may be based on how a communication is understood by individuals who know the plaintiffs.
Based on the foregoing, the Court reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
Miller v. Sawant, 2021 WL 5227171 (9th Cir. 2021).
The Ninth Circuit noted that it was not deciding whether the City Councilmember was liable for defaming the officers. Rather, the Ninth Circuit only held that the officers plausibly pleaded a single element of their defamation claims at issue on appeal – the “of and concerning” element.