The New York Times lost a critical effort to block the defamation lawsuit brought by University of Alabama basketball player Kai Spears. However, the Times was able to toss out the false light claim in what could be a fascinating fight going forward.

Spears sued over the coverage of an incident on the night of January 14, 2023, when Spears and two high school friends, Dylan Serafini and Esai Morse, went to “The Strip” in Tuscaloosa, Alabama after the Alabama-LSU basketball game. They met  Spears’s teammates, Brandon Miller, and the team’s student manager, Cooper Lee. Spears decided to go back to the dorm rather than stay out while Miller and Lee drove to The Strip in Miller’s car.

Later, Spears learned that there had been a shooting with bullets hitting Miller’s windshield. The Times, however, reported that surveillance video showed two people “were struck by bullets in the crossfire,” and that a “detective also made note of an unidentified passenger in Miller’s car.” A confidential source was later reported as being “familiar with the case” and told The Times that Spears was the unidentified passenger in Miller’s car.

Spears declined to make any comment at the time.

The Times ran an article “A Fourth Alabama Player Was at a Deadly Shooting, in a Car Hit by Bullets.” It alleged that “[i]n another car that was struck were Brandon Miller, a star player for the Crimson Tide, and Kai Spears, a freshman walk-on whose presence at the scene had not been previously reported.” It added that in speaking with witnesses, various students  “[i]ncluding Spears, at least four Alabama players have now been placed at the scene of the shooting that took place in the early morning hours of Jan. 15….”

After the publication, representatives of The University of Alabama and affiliates of Spears told The Times that Spears was not present at the shooting.

Spears objected to Times suggesting that he was “involved” in the “fatal January shooting.” As a sports figure, such allegations can have a major impact on his future contracts both with teams and advertisers. The article also suggested that the University “kept quiet” on the players’ involvement in the shooting and placed Spears “at the scene of the shooting.”  It added:

[A police detective] said that Miles had texted Miller, telling him to pick him up and that “I need my joint,” referring to Miles’ s gun, which he had left in the back seat of Miller’s car.

The detective also made note of an unidentified passenger in Miller’s car. A person familiar with the case identified that person as Spears.

On March 20, Spears’s attorney demanded a public retraction of the statements pursuant to Ala. Code § 6-5-186, which The Times declined.

We have previously discussed retraction statutes that can limit damages or actions. Here is Alabama’s Section 6-5-186

“Prerequisites to recovery of vindictive or punitive damages in action for libel.

Vindictive or punitive damages shall not be recovered in any action for libel on account of any publication unless (1) it shall be proved that the publication was made by the defendant with knowledge that the matter published was false, or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not, and (2) it shall be proved that five days before the commencement of the action the plaintiff shall have made written demand upon the defendant for a public retraction of the charge or matter published; and the defendant shall have failed or refused to publish within five days, in as prominent and public a place or manner as the charge or matter published occupied, a full and fair retraction of such charge or matter.”

The New York Times issued a correction, but not a retraction.

Judge Scott Googler (N.D. Ala.) issued an interesting and well-considered decision.  He notably dismissed the false light claim of Spears. That is notable because such claims are subject to the “actual malice” standard established in New York Times v. Sullivan. Judge Googler found that Spears had not alleged sufficient facts to meet that standard.

What is interesting is that the New York Times did not allege that Spears is a public figure … yet.

In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court crafted the actual malice standard that required public officials to shoulder the higher burden of proving defamation. Under that standard, an official would have to show either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.

The standard was later extended to public figures.  The Supreme Court has held that public figure status applies when  someone “thrust[s] himself into the vortex of [the] public issue [and] engage[s] the public’s attention in an attempt to influence its outcome.”

A limited-purpose public figure status applies if someone voluntarily “draw[s] attention to himself” or allows himself to become part of a controversy “as a fulcrum to create public discussion.” Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Association, 443 U.S. 157, 168 (1979).

Spears has given public statements and is a sports sensation. There is a basis to claim that he is a public figure to force him to show that the Times either knew the falsity of the account or showed reckless disregard of the truth.

That means that this fight will likely happen again, but in the meantime, the case is going forward on the main defamation claim.