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Infowars, LLC v. Fontaine

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

October 24, 2019

Infowars, LLC; Free Speech Systems, LLC; and Kit Daniels, Appellants
v.
Marcel Fontaine, Appellee

          FROM THE 459TH DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY NO. D-1-GN-18-001605, THE HONORABLE SCOTT H. JENKINS, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Triana and Kelly

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Gisela D. Triana, Justice.

         Appellants Infowars, LLC; Free Speech Systems, LLC; and Kit Daniels appeal from the district court's order partially denying their motion to dismiss under section 27.003 of the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA).[1] See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.003. We will affirm the district court's partial denial of Appellants' motion to dismiss.

         BACKGROUND

         On February 14, 2018, a shooter killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That same day, the Infowars.com website published an article authored by Daniels entitled "MSM already covering it up."[2] The article provided information and commentary relating to the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and included a clear photo of Marcel Fontaine below the text "another alleged photo of the suspect shows communist garb" and with the caption "Shooter is a commie."[3] In the photo, Fontaine is wearing a red shirt that features several famous communist leaders engaging in merriment. The photo remained on Infowars.com for about thirteen hours before it was removed, and no correction was issued at that time explaining that the photo was actually not that of the shooter. The parties appear to agree that Fontaine, who has never been to Florida, was not involved in the Parkland shooting.

         By March 1, 2018, Fontaine requested that Appellants issue a correction pursuant to section 73.055 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code. A month later, Fontaine filed the underlying lawsuit, and Appellants then issued a statement on the website noting that "we showed a photograph of a young man that we had received and stated incorrectly that it was an alleged photo of the suspected shooter at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. . . ." Fontaine's lawsuit alleged claims for defamation and defamation per se as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress. The petition further alleged that all defendants were engaged in a conspiracy and that Alex E. Jones[4] and Infowars, LLC are liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Jones and Appellants filed a motion to dismiss under the TCPA. The district court granted the motion as to Fontaine's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but denied the motion as to the defamation claim. Appellants raise three issues on appeal: (1) all claims against Infowars, LLC should have been dismissed because there is no evidence to support any cause of action against Infowars, LLC; (2) Fontaine failed to establish clear and specific evidence to support a prima facie case of defamation, conspiracy, and respondeat superior against Daniels and Free Speech Systems; and (3) the district court failed to award Appellants their reasonable and necessary attorney's fees as a result of the partial grant of their motion to dismiss.

         ANALYSIS

         "Reviewing a TCPA motion to dismiss requires a three-step analysis." Youngkin v. Hines, 546 S.W.3d 675, 679 (Tex. 2018). First, the party moving for dismissal must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the TCPA applies to the legal action against it. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.005(b). If the movant meets that burden, the nonmovant must establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of its claim. Id. § 27.005(c). "The words 'clear' and 'specific' in the context of this statute have been interpreted respectively to mean, for the former, 'unambiguous,' 'sure,' or 'free from doubt' and, for the latter, 'explicit' or 'relating to a particular named thing.'" Hawxhurst v. Austin's Boat Tours, 550 S.W.3d 220, 230 (Tex. App.-Austin 2018, no pet.) (quoting In re Lipsky, 460 S.W.3d 579, 590 (Tex. 2015)). "In determining whether a legal action should be dismissed under [the TCPA], the court shall consider the pleadings and supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts on which the liability or defense is based." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.006(a) ("Evidence"). Collectively, these elements require that the "plaintiff must provide enough detail to show the factual basis for its claim." Bedford v. Spassoff, 520 S.W.3d 901, 904 (Tex. 2017) (per curiam). If the nonmovant satisfies that requirement, the burden shifts back to the movant to prove each essential element of any valid defenses by a preponderance of the evidence. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.005(d).

         The parties do not dispute that the TCPA applies to the defamation action against Appellees, and Appellants have not asserted any defense. As a result, only the second step of the TCPA analysis is at issue here-whether Fontaine established by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of his defamation claim. We review de novo whether the parties met their respective burdens of proof under section 27.005. Long Canyon Phase II & III Homeowners Ass'n v. Cashion, 517 S.W.3d 212, 217 (Tex. App.-Austin 2017, no pet.).

         Liability of Infowars, LLC

         Appellants contend that Fontaine failed to establish any evidence of Infowars, LLC's involvement in publication of the alleged defamation, thereby falling short of the TCPA's requirement to establish a prima facie case for liability as to Infowars, LLC. In support of his contention that Infowars, LLC is a proper defendant in this case, Fontaine filed an affidavit by Marcus Turnini, who averred that he had visited the Infowars.com website and attached as exhibits to his affidavit a true and correct copy of portions of the website as they existed on August 1, 2018. Appellants objected that the district court should have excluded Turnini's affidavit on the grounds that the affiant was not an expert, did not profess to have personal knowledge about the contents of the webpages attached to his affidavit, and did not provide any explanation about the contents of the webpages at the time the alleged defamatory article was published. On appeal, they assert that the affidavit should not have been admitted or considered.

         In his affidavit, Turnini states that he is a paralegal, that he visited two separate links containing Infowars.com's terms of service, and that he attached true and correct copies of the website pages located at those links to his affidavit. Turnini is not acting as an expert for Fontaine. In this instance, Turnini's affidavit explains that he has personal knowledge of the contents of the exhibits by stating that he visited the website on August 1, 2018, and printed a true and correct copy of its contents. Although Appellants argue that evidence of the state of the website in August does not account for what might have been on the website on February 14, 2018, they do not present evidence or argument that the Terms of Use were different on February14, 2018, or any time thereafter. The district court's order does not reveal whether the district court relied on Turnini's affidavit, but we conclude on this record that the district court would not have abused its discretion in considering Turnini's affidavit. See Melton v. CU Members Mortg., ___ S.W.3d ___, ___ No. 03-18-00363-CV, 2019 Tex.App. LEXIS 6507 at * 9 (Tex. App.-Austin, 2019) (no pet. h.) ("We review rulings on the admission or exclusion of evidence for abuse of discretion.").

         At the time Turnini provided his affidavit, the online document containing Infowars.com's terms of service was entitled "INFOWARS LLC, TERMS OF USE & PRIVACY POLICY" (Terms of Use). The Terms of Use expressly applied to "planet.infowars.com and all other Uniform Resource Identifier[s] we use to provide our Products and Services." A Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) is a sequence of characters used to identify "resources via separately defined extensible sets of naming schemes." Drauglis v. Kappa Map Grp., LLC, 128 F.Supp.3d 46, 56-57 (D.D.C. 2015). URI is a broad term that includes Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), otherwise known as links. Id. at 57. Thus, the website link Infowars.com qualifies as a URI. The Terms of Use describe users' rights and abilities to use Infowars.com and provide for legal consequences for noncompliance. Under the Terms of Use, "'We,' 'us,' and 'our' means Infowars, LLC, a Texas limited liability company." Some of the rights and responsibilities specified by the Terms of Use include how "notices from us shall be sent" to users, how "We" gather information about users to use and to share with third parties, and how "We may review and delete any content you post on the Website or elsewhere utilizing our Services or System if we determine, in our sole discretion, that the content violates that rights of others, is not appropriate for the Website, or otherwise violates this Agreement." In other words, under the Terms of Use, use of Infowars.com initiated a relationship between the user and Infowars, LLC, and Infowars, LLC was involved ...


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