MLM Attorney, Kevin Thompson, on Bloomberg TV

I had the privilege of being on Bloomberg for a small segment talking about Bill Ackman’s latest presentation. The 7-minute segment can be viewed above. Ackman’s presentation today, if you can spare 3+ hours, can be found here.

Before summarizing his argument, it needs to be said that he heavily promoted this presentation yesterday. He was like Muhammad Ali talking about the Thrilla in Manila, saying it was “the most important presentation of his life.” He further said that this would be the “death blow” to Herbalife. He successfully spooked the market, causing it to sink 11%. Instead of “conclusively proving fraud,” which was his intent, he ignited confidence in the market due to the lack of substance. After the presentation, the stock UP 25% (same day). I’m not making this up. Up 25% the day of the death blow. Only on Wall Street.

I’ll summarize his thesis:

    • Herbalife’s usage of “Nutrition Clubs” operates like a bait and switch for consumers.
    • The prospects are lured into the clubs on the auspices of hanging out with friends and sampling products.
    • These prospects are then pressured to “get on the treadmill” and join as distributors and recruit more people to visit the clubs.
    • The Club concept is designed to recruit, not to sell.
    • Herbalife’s stance that the clubs foster community efforts for weight loss is smoke and mirrors.
    • He goes further and argues that the positioning of some of the clubs as “success universities” is misleading because they’re not accredited as real universities.
    • He further argues that the Clubs violate various labor laws since the members are expected to help out in keeping the club operational i.e. free labor.
    • He argues that Michael Johnson learned of these strategies of penetrating the hispanic market while at Disney. In my opinion, he gave Michael Johnson way more credit than he deserved in this regard. The Nutrition Club concept was likely an invention in the field.

We discuss the presentation during the interview. Herbalife has issued its own response, including the findings from an economist about its model. Based on his data, he concluded that the vast majority of revenue is attributable to legitimate product consumption i.e. people buying for legitimate value. The data is significant, as it essentially puts the pyramid scheme argument to bed. If true, the majority of commissions are driven via legitimate economic activity by “ultimate users.” This is why, in my opinion, Ackman paid very little attention to the law today. I think he knows the law is not in his favor on a macro level with Herbalife. Instead, he was arguing the facts on a micro level, painting a picture that there’s a massive bait-and-switch occurring with the Nutrition Clubs. In his mind, if he can kill the Nutrition Clubs, he can kill Herbalife.

Commentary from me

Herbalife needs to avoid gloating. They sort of spiked the football today with their remarks. Yes, Ackman’s presentation went off like a snap bomp instead of the full scale firework show we were promised. But, with that being said, he’s certainly not someone to poke. He’s obviously emotionally charged on the issue. He cried on a few occasions during the presentation. In his mind, he sees himself as a “Superman” that needs to rescue these poor, hispanic citizens. While 93% of Herbalife Nutrition Club operators are happy with their experience (based on a recent survey), Ackman would argue that they’re under a trance that only he can break. Referencing the history of his great-grandfather that came to America from Russia, Ackman sees Herbalife as preying on people like his great-granddad, causing significant damage for future generations.

Bottom line: he’s amped up. And his puts expire in January of 2015, which means he needs to land a punch soon to get the stock to soften before he eats the loss. I think he’s done his worst to Herbalife. It’s now in the hands of regulators. Speaking of regulators, he did not provide them with any new ammunition today that they did not already possess yesterday. I stand firm with my initial opinion, made in January of 2013. Admittedly, I could be wrong. But I do not think the FTC will file an action against Herbalife. Instead, I think there’s going to be some sort of negotiated settlement that will involve some sort of penalty for past transgressions. They’re the Federal government…they’re going to find something. Give me Ackman’s investigatory budget of $50,000,000 and I’ll find dirt on whatever you want. The return on his $50M investment was anti-climatic and the market made him pay.

What do you think? What’s next for Herbalife? What’s next in Bill Ackman’s playbook?

(ARTICLE FEATURED IN SEEKING ALPHA) Battle Over BurnLounge: Both sides claim victory

Below is an excerpt from my article about the Ninth Circuit opinion on BurnLounge.  The article can be read in full over at Seeking Alpha.  It’s an important subject.  Click here to read it.

Summary

  • The Court successfully threaded the needle on the issue of “ultimate users,” essentially creating two classes of participants.
  • The Court provided several factors throughout the opinion to help outsiders deduce the motivation driving consumption. This is especially helpful in assessing $HLF.
  • The Opinion will require the FTC’s pyramid scheme expert to create another analytical framework to distinguish pyramid schemes from legitimate direct selling companies (assuming they need one).
  • The Court adopted the logic provided by the FTC in its 2004 Staff Advisory Opinion.
  • The Court eliminated all confusion regarding Omnitrition as it completely ignored the widely referenced dicta that consumption from participants cannot count as sales to “ultimate users.”

On June 2nd, 2014, the Ninth Circuit published its long awaited BurnLounge Opinion. Within hours, both sides of the Herbalife battlefield issued statements claiming victory about the decision. I’ve taken the week to process the opinion. During this time, I’ve tried to keep up to speed with the online chatter regarding various interpretations. One thing is clear: the gray space in MLM law separating legitimate direct selling companies from pyramid schemes has been minimized considerably.

On the one side, Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square spun it as validation of its argument that commissions in the Herbalife plan were derived primarily by opportunity driven demand (recruitment rewards) instead of legitimate product consumption. On the other side, the MLM industry (myself included), breathed a sigh of relief, submitting that the decision validates a lot of our main points in responding to common criticisms of the model. This article is intended to cull out the key nuggets in the BurnLounge decision and interpret what it means going forward.

End of Excerpt

Click here to read the rest of the article on Seeking Alpha.  Seeking Alpha is a news site dedicated to publishing content about publicly traded companies.  The article took me quite a bit of time to prepare.  I hope you find it informative.

Ninth Circuit Releases BurnLounge Decision

The Ninth Circuit released it’s decision in the BurnLounge case. In summary, it’s bad for BurnLounge, good for network marketing industry.  If you will recall, BurnLounge was held to be a pyramid scheme by a Federal District Court in California. BurnLounged appealed, arguing that the court used an improper standard when it determined BurnLounge to be a pyramid scheme. Watch the video below to get a quick summary of the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

I intend to publish a more detailed analysis once I’ve had time to read the full opinion.

You can read the opinion below (or click here)

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE FTC: “When it comes to pyramid schemes, don’t be in denial”

If you’re reading this via email, please click the image above to view my video on the subject. 

The FTC is finally starting to talk, and we better pay attention. The FTC has recently announced a “Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunction” in its case against Fortune Hi Tech. There’s no surprise here…the founder of FHTM has recently passed away and there was not much to fight over once the initial injunction was in place.  The injunction is what we’ve been expecting: the company is prohibited from operating as an MLM and they’re ordered to pay cash to the government.  

In its announcement, the FTC communicated in plain English. Instead of giving you my perspective, I’m going to share their statement in full. It’s easy to read and it’ll give you an idea of what they find offensive. If I were to summarize (I know I told you I wouldn’t give my perspective, but I can’t help it), I’d say there were three things that caught the FTC’s attention regarding FHTM: (1) aggressive income claims with inadequate substantiation; (2) the emphasis of the marketing pitch was on recruitment instead of product value; (3) (you’re not going to deduce this from their statement below, but it was certainly a factor) the majority of the pay plan was driven by the volume from new participants i.e. front loading.

BEGINNING OF PRESS RELEASE, included in full

Promotional materials and live presentations for Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing used a lot of organizational jargon to recruit new people.  The first step:  Shell out start-up fees and monthly charges.  Next:  Recruit enough “independent reps” so you can work your way up through the ranks to Regional Sales Manager, Executive Sales Manager, National Sales Manager, Platinum Sales Manager, and ultimately “Presidential Ambassador.”  But the FTC and the State AGs of Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina have another term for FHTM’s convoluted system of recruiting and compensation: They call it a pyramid scheme.

Last year, the FTC and the states sued FHTM, related companies, and individual defendants, alleging they deceptively claimed people would make big bucks by signing up to sell FHTM’s health and beauty products and services from other vendors.  What kind of bait did they dangle before would-be entrepreneurs?  According to one video, “Four months in . . . I had actually quadrupled what I have ever made as a Registered Nurse.”  One of FHTM’s Platinum Sales Managers said in a video that people who reach the upper levels were making between $30,000 and $70,000 per month.  During a recorded conference call posted on a team website, an FHTM Presidential Ambassador claimed that a colleague involved for only six months “earned over $50,000 in one month” and “millions and millions beyond that.”

Ultimately, more than 350,000 people enrolled, but the FTC and State AGs say the bottom line was a far cry from FHTM’s bluster.  After conducting its own investigation, the court-appointed receiver concluded that FHTM’s main business was recruiting new members and not selling stuff  – a key factor in differentiating a pyramid scheme from a legitimate multi-level marketing plan.  For example, 98% of participants lost more money than they made and at least 88% didn’t even recoup their enrollment fees.  To the extent people made any money, 81% of the payments to FHTM participants came from recruiting new members, not from sales.

To settle the case, the defendants have agreed to a lifetime ban from multilevel marketing.  The stipulated order imposes a judgment of more than $169 million, which will be partially suspended when they surrender certain assets with an estimated value of at least $7.75 million, including property from the estate of defendant Paul Orberson, who died while the case was pending.  What kind of valuables are we talking about?  A farm in Kentucky, a Florida condo, a house in South Carolina, a BMW, a Jeep, two boats, a sports memorabilia collection, coins, and bullion.  The jet skis?  They’re going, too.

What can bizopp buyers and sellers take from the case?

    • Right on the money?  Some bizopp sellers argue that earnings claims are just harmless puffery.  Wrong.  If you state – or imply – that people will achieve certain results, you need competent and reliable evidence to back up those promises.  And don’t think that one person’s unusually successful outcome will be sufficient to support a general money-making claim.  Save the cherry-picking for the pie.
       
    • United we stand.  The FTC and State AGs stand shoulder to shoulder to protect consumers from questionable money-making ventures.  Sometimes the cooperation is behind the scenes; other times we’ll file a case jointly.  Either way, we work together to ferret out fraud and deter deception.
       
    • A ruse by any other name.  The evidence showed that the FHTM defendants targeted Spanish-speaking consumers and members of immigrant communities for their shady pitch.  Deception is deception, regardless of the language or demographics.
       
    • A word for entrepreneurs.  View business opportunity pitches with a skeptical eye, especally if the person making the promises stands to make money from your participation.  Before investing so much as a nickel, run it past someone with proven business savvy who isn’t trying to sell you something.  The FTC has free resources in English and Spanish to help you evaluate the options, with specific advice on multilevel marketing.  One possible tip-off to a bizopp rip-off:  If the focus is less on selling the product and more on recruiting new members.
END PRESS RELEASE

If you’re reading this via email, click here to review the Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunction.

BK Boreyko Tries His Hand at Magic: Does he pull it off?

01c62c29d34ede51f7c12ef645d59945I can remember where I was sitting when I saw David Copperfield’s infamous Statue of Liberty trick.  I was right in my living room, sitting three feet from our “big screen” 25 inch television.  I was speechless!  I had my imagination running wild….where in the world did it go!?  Is magic real!? As it turns out, years later, people revealed the logistics behind the magic: it was a revolving stage.  The statute was shown between two pillars, the curtain was lifted to conceal the statute, and as David Copperfield was doing his thing, the stage rotated without audience detection.  When the curtain was dropped, the audience (and those of us watching on television) were staring out into the ocean without even realizing it.

Changing the optic! Pure genius!

With BK’s latest announcement, he’s attempting a similar effort.  In summary, he’s changing the perspective (words) about MLM without changing the model itself.  He’s just rotating the stage while keeping the statute (the model) in tact.

In BK’s video below, he SPRINTS from the MLM category, claiming that Vemma is “more like Amazon and less like Amway.” I’ll start this breakdown with the obvious points first:

(1) Amazon is not a member of the Direct Selling Association;

(2) Amazon does not terminate its affiliates for promoting other MLMs;

(3) Amazon does not bind its affiliates to non-solicitation clauses (commonly done by clients of mine and every other company in the MLM industry);

(4) Amazon does not have monthly volume requirements.  BK makes it clear: “We no longer require our affiliates to buy products.”  Well that’s good to know, because you technically were never supposed to have such requirements anyways.  I know, I know….it’s debatable whether a company can impose a purchase requirement. ViSalus does it (I think).  But in my opinion, I advise all clients to stay away from required monthly purchases. Instead, Vemma is doing what 95% of all other MLMs do: they’re now requiring VOLUME.  Can this volume be achieved via the now optional Autoship? Yep.  Will the majority of reps qualify in this manner?  Probably.  Does this “change” make Vemma more like Amazon and less like Amway?  No. Ironically enough, Amway has ZERO volume requirements for reps to join.

(5) Amazon does not have a genealogy for calculating commissions i.e. there’s no opportunity for recruitment;

(6) Amazon discloses its revenue from customer sales. While BK implies of significant customer activity, we have no way of knowing the numbers.

Affiliate vs. MLM

In his video, BK distinguishes affiliate models from MLMs as follows: affiliate programs are more customer focused and there are no requirements to buy product. Please remember, the entire point of an MLM sales strategy is to SERVE CUSTOMERS. If Vemma was not on this track before, what in the world were they doing? And I’ve already opined on the issue of required product purchases. They never should’ve had those requirements in the first place. Going with a volume requirements puts them in line with most other MLMs out there (keyword being “IN-LINE”…..not ahead).

Real Changes

These are the changes that seem legitimate:

(1) Affiliates are all Customers first. When a “Customer” enrolls another customer, they become an Affiliate and qualified to earn commissions (after they generated the volume via personal purchases and/or sales). This is interesting to me. Do these Customers go on the Affiliate’s front-line i.e. like a personally enrolled affiliate would? If so, Vemma made it more difficult for affiliates to sling participants down in depth. This would legitimately slow recruitment; thus, look more like an Affiliate arrangement. If, on the other hand, these “Customers” are given a position in the genealogy and can benefit from their upline’s actions on a later date, we’re back to David Copperfield’s rotating stage. If the latter is the case, regulators will not consider those people as Customers in the event of an inquiry (my opinion).

(2) There’s a “Custiliate” program. Friend and MLM consultant, Mel Atwood, coined the phrase “Custiliate,” so I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. A Custiliate is a hybrid between a customer and an affiliate. The Customer cannot earn the big bucks but there are some financial incentives available. There’s nothing earth-shattering here. There are numerous companies out there that offer incentives for customers to share the products with other customers. With Vemma, they’re giving customers “credits” that can be redeemed for product sales. This is a good thing and most companies need to implement similar incentives. The key question: will the incentives lead to an increase in customer revenues? If an MLM is selling $1,000 lemonade, the policy would be lipstick on a pig because there would never be legitimate demand for such a product. If Vemma’s product is priced outside of the market, the Custiliate program is window-dressing. If it’s in-line, it’ll help drive the numbers up. This is not proven by making comparisons with Red Bull. It’s proven by customer revenue. It’s that simple.

(3) Vemma now pays full CV on customer activity. This caught me off guard. Why in the world were they allocating 50% on customer volume? This would be a dis-incentive for distributors (affiliates) to accrue customers. Why pursue customer sales that yield 50% CV when they can recruit and get 1 to 1 on the volume for their commissions? This is so bad, I’m not convinced I’m right. If they fixed the 50%, good for Vemma. They’re now in-line with other MLMs (again, in-line…..not ahead).

Conclusion

At a time when the industry needs to be more united, BK’s announcement of “big changes” is counter-productive. Will these changes lead to meaningful changes in Vemma’s sales culture, leading to a more customer-oriented company? Or is he just rotating the stage, using the right words and gestures while only changing the perspective?

What do you think?

If you’re reading this via email, click here to view BK’s announcement video.

Herbalife Announces FTC Investigation

Herbalife announced that the FTC has initiated an investigation. While it’s not pleasant to deal with a government subpoena, this gives Herbalife an opportunity to put this issue to rest. Watch the video below to get my thoughts. In summary, I believe the FTC will use the data it collects from Herbalife to sharpen its saw in an effort to create better guidelines for network marketing companies. They’re not going to sue Herbalife (though I’m sure they’re thinking about it). If you’re reading this via email, click here to watch the video. The paper referenced in my video can be found embedded below (or here).
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FTC Responds to Senator Markey’s Letter about Herbalife

MLM LawIn January of 2013, Senator Markey from Massachusetts called upon the FTC to investigate Herbalife. I made three predictions regarding the FTC’s response to Markey’s letter. I predicted: (1) The FTC would respond AFTER Markey’s requested dealing (Feb. 28); (2) the FTC would say nothing about Herbalife’s business model; and (3) the FTC would use this as an opportunity to start a broader conversation to help add clarity to the “gray” in the industry.

Well, there are two ways to look at my predictions regarding the FTC’s response.  I was either 66% wrong or 33% right. I’ll let you decide;)

The FTC’s letter to Markey is below. If you’re reading this via email, click here to read the letter.

The letter is easy to understand and interpret. Basically, the FTC cannot comment about Herbalife (which was the one prediction I got right). This is a quick summary of the letter:

85% of the letter was spent justifying the existence of the agency. I’ve paraphrased this part of the letter: “We’re busy and we’ve had a number of successes recently with respect to pyramid schemes and weight loss claims. While some say we’re dormant, we’re doing our best.”

The remaining 15% contains their response regarding Herbalife. It’s included below. I’ve paraphrased: “Thanks for bringing these concerns to our attention. We’re not able to talk about it. Just FYI, we assess a number of factors before making a decision to take actions. The factors referenced here are nebulous so as not to commit ourselves to anything specific. If consumers are having problems, give them our information.”

I have mixed thoughts about this response. I was hoping for something with more substance…something about their vision for the industry. But alas, we’ll save the discussion for improvements for a later date. At some point, the industry needs some help. The regulators are not able to squish all of the bad guys, which has led to a dirty environment.

With respect to the allegations against Herbalife, Ltd., a number of statutory provisions and the Commission Rules of Practice prevent me from discussing what action, if any, the Commission may take in any particular situation. I can assure you, however, that the information you provided and the concerns you expressed are being carefully considered. In general, in determining whether to take enforcement or other action, the Commission may consider a number of factors, including the nature of the practices at issue; the type of violation alleged; the likelihood of preventing future unlawful conduct and securing redress or other relief; the nature and amount of consumer injury at issue; and the number of consumers affected.

Complaints from consumers can provide valuable information that we frequently use to identify deceptive and unfair practices in the marketplace. Therefore, please encourage your constituents to file their complaints with the FTC, in English or in Spanish, by visiting the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant at https://www.ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 1-877- FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

Senator Markey’s Letter to the FTC: Prediction

Recently, Senator Markey from Massachusetts called upon the FTC to investigate Herbalife.  His full letter is included below. Click here to read if you’re reading via email. It’s worth mentioning that that the letter was likely originated by someone at Pershing Square, as observed by John Hempton. Markey has useful letterhead, being a U.S. Senator and all. I digress…

These are my predictions:

  • The FTC will respond. While Markey’s letter called for a response by February 28, I’m guessing they’ll respond after the deadline but by late April.
  • The FTC is not going to respond specifically about Herbalife. Three points worth mentioning here: (1) The FTC lacks the data to provide any meaningful commentary about Herbalife; (2) If the FTC had a problem with Herbalife, they’re not going to announce same at the behest of a Senator; and most importantly (3) Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme.  Ackman is playing another confidence game, and the market has grown immune to his tricks.
  • The FTC is going to take this as an opportunity to start a broader discussion about the network marketing space.  There’s an ocean of gray that separates legitimate network marketing companies from illegal pyramid schemes.  As a result of this ambiguity, fraudulent programs are flying under the guise of network marketing, claiming legitimacy because they’re “just like Amway.”  In my opinion, this is the underbelly of the space that the FTC needs to address, not companies like Herbalife.  What will these guidelines look like in the future?  That’s a different set of predictions for another time.

The video is a short one. I hope you find it informative. If you’re reading this via email, please click here to view the video.

Update: Herbalife’s CEO, Michael Johnson, personally wrote a response to Senator Markey. It’s also included below.

So You’ve Heard I’ve Been Retained?

In this video, I explain what it means when our firm is retained by a network marketing client. The fact that I’m retained should never be viewed as an endorsement of the program. There’s a lot that goes one when I’m working with a client and I make it very clear that my name is never to be used in a promotional sense i.e. “We hired Kevin Thompson and he says we’re a great company.” I want you to have a better understanding of what it means when I’m retained by a client. Watch this video to understand more.

The Cease and Desist

lawyer_joke_accounting_cartoon

If you’ve been in business for very long, there’s a good chance you’ve received what I call an “eat s%@#” letter from a lawyer. These are commonly referred to as “cease and desist” letters and are designed to serve two functions:

  • Intimidate the other side in an effort to get them to stop doing something; and,
  • Put the other side on notice that if the bad behavior persists, they could get sued.

Cease and desist letters are commonly used by network marketing companies when distributors are raiding the downline.  I’ve sent dozens of these letters to disgruntled distributors on behalf of companies, usually with a bit of discomfort while hoping the information I’m fed is accurate.  This is my litmus test I explain to clients before sending a C&D: if they’re willing to spend the money to sue the other party if the letter is ignored, I’ll send it. Otherwise, I’m not interested in allowing a client to take a gamble with my credentials.  I’m not a fan of sending hollow threats.  When someone sees a C&D on Thompson Burton letterhead, it needs to be known that we follow up, otherwise C&Ds are meaningless.

Negative Online Commentary

Negative online commentary is the cost of doing business. If you’re doing anything meaningful, there’s going to be some skeptical people. And if you’re doing something shady, there’s going to be a lot of skeptical people, some of whom will choose to write an article about you or your business. It’s the nature of the internet. We all have the power to publish content at the push of a few keys. While I have several thoughts on how companies should deal with negative online articles, I’m going to focus instead on what they should NOT do: have their lawyers send Cease and Desist letters.

In all of my years seeing online publishers post negative commentary about companies here and there, I have never once seen an author actually heed the C&D (hey, that rhymes). Troy Dooly gets them. BusinessForHome gets them. And now we can add Oz over at BehindMLM to the list. Oz was recently sent a C&D regarding his review about “BidsForMyMeds.” And what was the result? The article was not pulled down. On the contrary, Oz dedicated another article to the business and made the poor lawyer famous. Unless a company is willing to defend itself publicly on a platform it does not control, it should always lead with a hand shake instead of a handgun. Be proactive instead of reactive. I have yet to see an instance where an online author posts blatant lies about a company or person. In that scenario, it might make sense to throw a punch. In nearly all cases, the authors are providing their opinions. As biased as those opinions might be, they’re still opinions and given broad protections under the First Amendment.

Scope of the First Amendment

When you’re thinking about calling your lawyer to send one of these nasty-grams to an online meanie, it’s important to understand the limits of First Amendment protections. Below, I’ve inserted some notes from one my talks a few years ago with respect to the First Amendment and blogging. Bottom line: save the Cease and Desist for those occasions when the damages are real, you’re justified and you’re fully prepared to go the distance. Otherwise, throw water on the fire instead of gasoline by reaching out human-to-human and engaging in a conversation. Keep your emotions under control.

If you’ve received a C&D, how did you handle it?

Beginning of my notes

DEFAMATION

A statement is defamatory if it “tends to injure the plaintiff’s reputation and expose the plaintiff to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or degradation.” Phipps v. Clark Oil & Ref. Corp., 408 N.W.2d 569, 573 (Minn. 1987).
The defendant must have known or should have known that the communication was false. The statement must also have been a statement of fact.

Defamation Per se

Some statements are so defamatory that they are considered defamation per se; and the plaintiff need not prove that the statements harmed his reputation. The classic examples of defamation per se are allegations of serious sexual misconduct; allegations of serious criminal misbehavior; or allegations that a person is afflicted with a loathsome disease.

What Constitutes Injury to Reputation?

The plaintiff must establish proof of damage to reputation in order to recover any damages for mental anguish; see Gobin v. Globe Publishing Co., 232 Kan. 1, 649 P.2d 1239, 1244 (1982).

Libel-proof plaintiffs

Some plaintiffs have such poor reputations to begin with, they are considered “libel- proof.” A plaintiff is “libel-proof” when his reputation has been irreparably stained by prior publications. At the point the challenged statements are published, then, plaintiff’s reputation is already so damaged that a plaintiff cannot recover more than nominal damages for subsequent defamatory statements. Marcone v. Penthouse Int’l Magazine for Men, 754 F.2d 1072, 1079 (3rd Cir. 1985).

Defenses to Defamation

Truth is an absolute defense.

If the communication is designed as a parody where a reasonable audience would not confuse it as factual, it is not actionable. Falwell v. Hustler Magazine. In Falwell, the Supreme Court held, “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”

In the mid-80s, Hustler magazine printed a satirical advertisement talking about Jerry Falwell’s “first time” with liquor. The advertisement was a play on words that made it seem like Jerry was talking about his “first time” with his mother. Since the advertisement was clearly a parody and one where a reasonable audience would know that the statements were not factual, Jerry Falwell lost his lawsuit.

“Actual Malice”

If the Plaintiff is considered a Public Official or Public Figure, they have to prove that the Defendant acted with malicious intent to harm the Plaintiff. It’s an extra element that makes it more difficult for public figures to file suit against their detractors.

What’s a Public Figure/Official

In general, Public Officials are individuals that hold public office while public figures are individuals that are in the forefront of particular issues.

Large, publicly traded companies are typically treated as “public figures” for purposes of First Amendment cases. If a citizen lashes out at Comcast and communicates false statements. Comcast would have the additional burden of proving that the individual acted with malicious intent to harm the company.

Opinion defenses

The First Amendment protects statements of opinion, as distinct from statements of fact, against claims of defamation. A statement is an opinion when:

(1) the statement is genuinely believed; and
(2) that there is a reasonable basis for that belief; and
(3) that the speaker is not aware of any undisclosed facts tending to undermine the accuracy of the statement.

Prefacing a sentence with “in my opinion” is not always the cure. Statements of opinions can be actionable when one of the above factors is absent.

– end notes –