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Florida Third DCA affirms dismissal of libel/defamation complaint, finds that allegedly defamatory statements in documentary program were either not capable of being proved true or false on a core of objective evidence, consisted of so-called rhetorical hyperbole, or were protected commentary or opinion

On October 21, 2020, in Skupin v. Hemisphere Media Group, Inc. et al., No. 3D19-1555, the Florida Third DCA affirmed a trial court ruling dismissing a plaintiff’s lawsuit against eight media companies. The plaintiff alleged defamation, libel, and tortious interference with advantageous business relationships based on alleged defamatory statements made against him in an investigative reporting series.  The Third DCA noted preliminarily that commentary or opinion based on facts that are set forth in the subject publication or which are otherwise known or available to the reader or listener do not constitute libel, citing Turner v. Wells, 879 F. 3d 1254, 1262 (11th Cir. 2018) (“True statements, statements that are not readily capable of being proven false, and statements of pure opinion are protected from defamation actions by the First Amendment.”); Hay v. Indep. Newspapers, Inc., 450 So. 2d 293, 295 (Fla. 2d DCA 1984); From v. Tallahassee Democrat, Inc., 400 So. 2d 52, 57 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981).  In addition, the Third DCA noted that in Florida, whether a statement is one of fact or opinion is a question of law for the court and not a jury, citing Hay, 450 So. 2d at 295 and “[w]hether statements are privileged expressions of pure opinion or unprivileged mixed expressions of opinion is a question of law properly resolved by the trial court,” quoting from Sepmeier v. Tallahassee Democrat, Inc., 461 So. 2d 193, 195 (Fla. 1st DCA 1984). The Third DCA noted that the trial court had restricted itself to the four corners of the complaint in making its decision, and had simply concluded that each of the statements in the documentary program was either not capable of being proved true or false on a core of objective evidence; consisted of so-called rhetorical hyperbole; or was protected commentary or opinion based on facts set forth in the reports that are otherwise known or available to the listener.

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