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Supreme Court turns away coal baron's defamation claim against news companies

The justices declined to consider overturning a 1964 precedent that concluded there must be evidence of “actual malice” for a public figure to pursue a defamation claim.
Don Blankenship
Don Blankenship at a Senate campaign event in Bluefield, W.Va., on May 3, 2018.Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Tuesday to consider overturning a landmark case that protects news organizations facing defamation claims by rejecting an appeal brought by West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship.

Blankenship, also an erstwhile Republican Senate candidate, sued various news organizations for referring to him as a convicted felon when, in fact, he was convicted of a misdemeanor in relation to a mining disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners.

He claimed that his loss in the 2018 Republican Senate primary in West Virginia was attributable to the erroneous comments repeated in the media, which he suggested were deliberate.

Among the defendants is MSNBC, a division of NBCUniversal, which also owns NBC News. CNN, Fox News and The Washington Post are among other news organizations that were sued.

Blankenship asked the court to overturn the 1964 Supreme Court defamation ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, which concluded that there must be evidence of “actual malice” for a public figure to pursue a defamation claim.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who has said the court should consider overturning the 1964 ruling, wrote a brief opinion saying he agreed with the decision not to hear Blankenship's specific claim.

"I continue to adhere to my view that we should reconsider the actual malice standard," he added.

Fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch has also suggested that the precedent, which makes it harder for public figures to bring defamation claims, should be overturned.

In Blankenship's case, lower courts dismissed the defamation claims, finding that there was no evidence of actual malice.