Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, Founder of Crenshaw Christian Center, Wins Major Victory in Defamation Lawsuit Against ABC News, John Stossel
A federal judicial panel ruled today that the question of whether a false and misleading ABC News report libeled prominent South Los Angeles pastor Dr. Frederick K.C. Price should be decided by a jury.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed a victory to the founder of the 22,000-member Crenshaw Christian Center by reversing a lower court's ruling that ABC's and correspondent John Stossel's misrepresentation of Dr. Price's own words were protected by the First Amendment.
The 9th Circuit panel ruled that ABC had materially changed the meaning of Dr. Price's words in a clip it broadcast from one of the pastor's televised sermons, because it told viewers Price was speaking of himself when in fact he was speaking of a hypothetical person in a parable about lack of faith.
"We therefore hold that the district court erred as a matter of law in dismissing Price's express defamation claim," the Court ruled in remanding the case back to the district court. "Under controlling Supreme Court precedent on when journalists' misquotations of statements made by public figures are false for purposes of establishing actual malice, there is a substantial likelihood that Price can establish that the publication of the Clip was false. Hence, we reverse the district court's dismissal under the anti-SLAPP statute."
Dr. Price said the decision struck a blow for justice and the constitutional rights of everyone whose reputation has been damaged by a deliberately false and misleading news report.
"We have been in this battle for the past three years because we want to see justice done," said Dr. Price. "We could not in good conscience allow this wrong to be done and just sweep it under the rug. It is a matter of principle."
Dr. Price's attorney, Anthony M. Glassman of Glassman, Browning, Saltsman & Jacobs, said the case turned on the key fact that the pastor's words were used in the ABC report to convey a "self-condemnatory" meaning that in truth was not there.
"Nothing in the First Amendment protects unfair and deceptive hit pieces premised upon factual misrepresentation," Mr. Glassman said. "The ABC report used Dr. Price's own words out of context so it appeared to be a self-condemnatory quotation, when in context his words had a materially different meaning. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Masson (Masson, 501 U.S.) that the public is not served by extending the First Amendment to such practices."
The ABC story, which aired March 23, 2007 on both ABC's Good Morning America and 20/20 programs, was headlined "Enough!" and questioned whether several ministers who preach the Prosperity Gospel had deceived their congregations by diverting donations to support their own lavish lifestyles.
The story included a film clip of one of Dr. Price's televised sermons in which he is seen telling his congregation, "I live in a 25 room mansion, I have my own $6 million yacht, I have my own private jet and I have my own helicopter and I have seven luxury automobiles."
In fact, Dr. Price was not speaking of himself. He was preaching a sermon about a hypothetical person who had great wealth but lived a spiritually unfulfilled life.
"Well I was pointing out that there is such a thing as bad success," Dr. Price told his congregation in the sermon that was first televised on The Lifetime Network in 1997. Then, speaking the words that ABC used in its report, he described this hypothetical person's wealth. But in the next sentence, which ABC did not air, he added that the man's wife was unfaithful, his children were on drugs and his friends only liked him for his money. "Friends, to me that's bad success," Dr. Price told the congregation.
Dr. Price, who does not own a helicopter, a jet, a $6 million yacht, a 25-room mansion or seven luxury cars, sued ABC and Mr. Stossel for defamation. ABC moved for dismissal under California's anti-SLAPP statute protecting free speech.
ABC's attorneys had argued that since Dr. Price is wealthy and owns a large house and a luxury car, the use of the quote, even through admittedly false on its face, was substantially true and should be protected speech.
Mr. Glassman argued that the report, taken as a whole, used the pastor's own words to falsely imply that he is dishonest, corrupt and unethical. A key point, he argued, is that the ABC report said Dr. Price "boasts" about his wealth, when in fact his ministry is founded on the belief that living a humble, Godly life leads to material prosperity.
"Dr. Price preaches that prosperity flows from the beneficence of God to those who live a morally sound, God-centered life," Mr. Glassman said. "Preaching prosperity from God and boasting are not the same. ABC used his own words to falsely portray him as haughty and immodest, when his words actually reflect humility and modesty."
"Under Masson, the district court in this case should have compared the meaning conveyed by the Clip as broadcast with the meaning of Price's own words in the context of the sermon he actually delivered," the 9th Circuit ruled.
The Courts decision reverses that ruling and now remands the matter back to the lower court for a jury trial.