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Supreme Court won't hear defamation claim over book that became 'War Dogs' movie

The son of Albania's former prime minister sued over his portrayal in the book, which claimed he was a key figure in the Albanian mafia.
Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in \"War Dogs\" in 2016.
Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in "War Dogs" in 2016.Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear the appeal of an Albanian man who said the book that became the movie "War Dogs" falsely linked him to arms dealers.

Justice Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken the case so it could reconsider how much legal protection to give journalists and publishers in the age of social media.

Shkelzen Berisha, the son of Albania's former prime minister, sued author Guy Lawson for defamation over his book, "Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History," purporting to tell the true story of how three young people became international arms dealers. As the plot unfolded, the three have run-ins with the Albanian mafia, describing Berisha as a key figure in the organization.

Lawson sold the movie rights to Warner Bros., and the book became the movie "War Dogs," starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller.

Lower federal courts said that because Berisha was a public figure, he was required to demonstrate not only that the statements were false but also that they were made with actual malice. The rulings cited the Supreme Court's landmark civil rights-era case, New York Times v. Sullivan.

Under that ruling, public figures can prevail in defamation suits only by proving that the person who made the statements knew they were false or acted with reckless disregarded for the truth.

Thomas has written before that the court should revisit the decision. He was joined in that view in this latest case by Gorsuch, who said the media landscape has changed radically since the court decided the Sullivan case in 1964.

"Today virtually anyone in this country can publish virtually anything for immediate consumption virtually anywhere in the world," he wrote. "Everyone carries a soapbox in their hands."

The climate in the 1960s, in which relatively few news media organizations abided by traditional journalistic standards, has changed. The Sullivan decision "has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable," Gorsuch said.