Alleged “QAnon John”‘s Libel Lawsuit Against Anti-Defamation League Can Go Forward

April 30, 2024   |   Tags: ,

From Judge Reed O'Connor's decision today in Sabal v. Anti-Defamation League (N.D. Tex.):

Plaintiff John Sabal started his own business, The Patriot Voice, to organize conservative political events. The purpose of these events is to showcase "pertinent and dynamic speakers, whose messages are timely and relevant." These events also "feature speakers of every color and creed, including those of the Jewish faith." … Sabal contends that ADL defamed him….

The first ADL publication at issue is entitled, "Backgrounder: QAnon" (the "Backgrounder"). The Backgrounder includes two references to Sabal. The first states that "several aspects of QAnon lore mirror longstanding antisemitic tropes, and multiple QAnon influencers, including … QAnon John (John Sabal) have been known to peddle antisemitic beliefs." [The Backgrounder specifically refers to "the antisemitic trope of blood libel, the false theory that Jews murder Christian children for ritualistic purposes." -EV] The second states that "[i]n October 2021, several elected officials and candidates spoke at the Patriot Double Down conference hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada by antisemitic QAnon influencer John Sabal (QAnon John)." The words "spoke at the Patriot Double Down conference" link to an article published by the Arizona Mirror reporting on "some extremely antisemitic imagery," such as visuals of Hitler and the Star of David superimposed against a picture of the 9/11 attacks….

The second publication is ADL's "Glossary of Extremism and Hate" ("Glossary"), which "provides an overview of many of the terms and individuals used by or associated with movements and groups that subscribe to and/or promote extremist or hateful ideologies." The Glossary entry at issue here provides that "John Sabal, also known as 'QAnon John,' is a QAnon influencer who runs The Patriot Voice website, which he uses to advertise QAnon-related conferences. These conferences, the first of which was held in May 2021, have showcased the mainstreaming of QAnon and other conspiracy theories." …

The third ADL publication at issue is the report entitled, "Hate in the Lone Star State: Extremism & Antisemitism in Texas" (the "Lone Star Report"), which "explore[d] a range of extremist groups and movements operating in Texas and highlights the key extremist and antisemitic trends and incidents in the state in 2021 and 2022." The Lone Star Report identifies Sabal in connection with a Dallas conference:

Over the last few years, Texas has been at the heart of several notable QAnon events and incidents. The state has been home to multiple QAnon-themed conferences, highlighting the mainstreaming of QAnon and other conspiracies among conservative communities and the GOP. The most notable was "For God & Country: Patriot Roundup," which took place on Memorial Day weekend 2021. Organized by John Sabal, known online as "QAnon John" and "The Patriot Voice," the event featured then-Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX), then-Texas GOP chair Allen West, Lt. General Michael Flynn, attorney and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell and various QAnon influencers. During the event, Michael Flynn seemingly endorsed a Myanmar-style coup in the U.S., although he has since backtracked on his remarks….

The Complaint alleges that the Backgrounder is defamatory by falsely stating that Sabal has been "known to peddle antisemitic beliefs, including the "antisemitic trope of blood libel." … From a review of the Backgrounder, the Complaint plausibly contends that a reasonable reader would view the statement "known to peddle antisemitic beliefs" as a factual assertion about Sabal. True, some courts have found calling a person "antisemitic" to be a non-actionable opinion. However, Texas law makes clear that this determination depends on context, which may reveal that an opinion instead functions as a factual assertion. Bentley v. Bunton (Tex. 2002) (holding that calling someone "corrupt" was actionable defamation based on the challenged publication's context because a reasonable reader could view the statement as an assertion of fact). Taking as true the allegations that Sabal has never expressed or endorsed antisemitic views, ADL's statements seem possible to verify: either Sabal has made such statements or he has not, making ADL's assertions capable of being proven false.

To accept Defendant's argument that a reasonable viewer would not attribute the blood libel conspiracy to Sabal would require the Court to ignore illustrative context in the Backgrounder. Contextual clues plausibly suggest to a reasonable reader that Sabal factually believes and endorses this antisemitic belief. For instance, the Backgrounder's description of the blood libel conspiracy immediately follows the explicit mention of four "QAnon influencers" by name. One of those names is Sabal. ADL identifies these influencers as those who are "known to peddle antisemitic beliefs." The textual proximity of the blood libel theory appears to function as an example of one such antisemitic belief. A reasonable reader could conclude that ADL mentioned Sabal and the other three names to provide examples of people who espouse the specific antisemitic belief of blood libel….

The Complaint also plausibly shows that ADL's statements in the Backgrounder carry defamatory impact…. ADL's accusation that Sabal espouses abhorrent beliefs is plausibly harmful to his reputation and occupation—just like calling someone "corrupt" in certain contexts carries the same potential harm, Bentley—because such allegations do not carry "innocent" meaning….

Viewing the entire context—and not merely the individual statements—the Backgrounder implies "materially true facts from which a defamatory inference can reasonably be drawn." …

Sabal's Complaint next alleges that ADL's inclusion of his name as an entry in the Glossary of Extremism is provably false and defamatory because it implies Sabal "is a dangerous, extremist threat and even a criminal." Published by ADL's Center on Extremism, the entry links to a mission statement advising readers that ADL "track[s] extremist trends, ideologies and groups across the ideological spectrum" and its "staff of investigators, analysts, researchers and technical experts strategically monitor, expose and disrupt extremist threats."

ADL argues that the Glossary entry is not defamatory because it includes entries for many persons beyond Sabal. As such, a description about one person does not necessarily apply to others. But the Glossary has one overarching theme shared by all entries: extremism. The Glossary even states that "many of the terms and individuals used by or associated with movements and groups that subscribe to and/or promote extremist or hateful ideologies." Although ADL contends that calling someone an extremist is not defamatory, the type of extremism featured in the Glossary is of a highly criminal and depraved nature. Combined with the mission statement, the Glossary's context appears convey factual assertions about persons with Glossary entries rather than mere opinion.

To a reasonable reader, the Glossary may objectively indicate that all persons on this list are similarly dangerous and abhorrent. In his Complaint, Sabal pleads that Defendant wrongly likened him to "murderous Islamic terrorists—such as Nidal Hasan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and ISIS—notable white supremacists—such as David Duke—and racist mass-murderers—such as Dylann Roof (the Charlestown church shooter), Brenton Tarrant (the Christchurch shooter), and Patrick Cruscius (the El Paso Walmart shooter)." In the full context of the Glossary, it was plausibly defamatory to call Sabal an extremist by including him alongside obviously dangerous terrorists and mass murderers. Cf. Bentley (holding that, while the term "corrupt" is normally used as opinion, it can be used as a statement of fact in certain contexts). Further revealing the plausibility of this defamatory implication is the absence of additional information about Sabal in the Glossary to counter the likelihood that a reasonable reader would understand this publication as a factual assertion about Sabal….

Similar to the Glossary and the Backgrounder, the third allegedly defamatory statement is found in the Lone Star Report's reference to Sabal's 2021 "QAnon-themed" event when discussing antisemitic incidents, hate crimes, and terrorist activities in Texas. ADL's sole argument is that most of the statements in this publication are not attributable to Sabal. But a contextual review of the entire Lone Star Report tells a different story. By including Sabal alongside antisemites and extremists in a report highlighting "[h]ate [c]rime [s]tatistics" and "[e]xtremist [p]lots and [m]urders," a reasonable reader could objectively understand the publication's context as making a factual assertion that Sabal's events are associated with such criminal activity. Further evincing this potential factual imputation is the Lone Star Report's hyperlink to Sabal's Glossary entry. As with the publications discussed above, inclusion of Sabal by name in a report about criminal extremism and antisemitism is "obviously hurtful to [his] reputation" in Texas and carries the potential to injure his "office, profession, or occupation."

Therefore, the Court determines that Sabal pleads sufficient facts at this stage to show plausible defamation based on the Lone Star Report because it factually implies Sabal is a particular type of extremist who engages in, or is otherwise responsible for, dangerous criminal activity….

Looking at each [of the above statements], individually and in context, it is plausible that each is provably false. That is not to preliminarily determine that each statement is, in fact, false. Instead, the Court merely recognizes that evidence could be produced to prove the falsity of the challenged statements, which leads to the conclusion at this stage that they are factual assertions rather than opinion. Similarly, these statements plausibly carry defamatory significance due to the lack of innocent meaning that is hurtful to Sabal's business and reputation. Therefore, the Court concludes at this stage that Sabal plausibly alleges defamation based on statements contained in three of the four ADL publications….

The court deferred deciding whether Sabal was a limited-purpose public figure, and thus had to show that the ADL knew that the statements were false or likely false:

The requisite degree of fault that flows from Sabal's status is a question of law for the Court to ultimately decide. In candor, this is a close call. And the chaotic state of case law on limited-purpose public figures only further complicates this question. See, e.g., Berisha v. Lawson (2021) (Gorsuch, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (lamenting that "the very categories and test this Court invested and instructed lower courts to use in this area—'pervasively famous,' 'limited purpose public figure'—seem increasingly malleable and even archaic when almost anyone can attract some degree of public notoriety in some media segment"). As a result, the Court determines that it is appropriate to instead evaluate whether Sabal is a limited-purpose public figure at a later stage in these proceedings with the benefit of additional briefing and development of the factual record. Indeed, there are times when "[i]ssues pertaining to [a plaintiff's] defamation claims are better resolved at the summary judgment stage."

But the court rejected a separate part of Sabal's claim, which rested on ADL's Congressional testimony, because testimony is absolutely immune from defamation liability.

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