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Ayyadurai v. Floor64, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 6, 2017

SHIVA AYYADURAI, Plaintiff,
v.
FLOOR64, INC. d/b/a TECHDIRT, MICHAEL DAVID MASNICK, LEIGH BEADON, and DOES 1-20, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS AND TO STRIKE

          F. DENNIS SAYLOR IV UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a tort action arising out of allegedly defamatory statements that the plaintiff falsely claimed to be the inventor of e-mail. Plaintiff Shiva Ayyadurai is a scientist and entrepreneur. In 1979, at the age of 14, he created an electronic-mail system for use at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. On the basis of that creation, he has since claimed to have invented e-mail, and has received some positive media attention on the basis of that claim. Defendants Floor64, Inc., Michael Masnick, and Leigh Beadon operate or write for a website called “Techdirt.” Defendants posted a series of 14 articles disagreeing with Ayyadurai's claim, stating, among other things, that he is “a liar, ” that his claim is “fake, ” and that he has made several misrepresentations in support of his claim.

         Ayyadurai then brought this action, asserting claims for libel, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         Jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship.

         Defendants have moved to strike the complaint pursuant to the California anti-SLAPP statute and to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, for improper service of process, and, with respect to one of the 14 articles, on the ground that the claim is barred by the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). For the reasons stated below, the motions to strike will be denied and the motions to dismiss will be granted.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         1. The Parties

         According to the complaint, Shiva Ayyadurai “is a world-renowned scientist, inventor, lecturer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur.” (Compl. ¶ 1). He “has been recognized internationally for his developments in early social media portals, email management technologies, and contributions to medicine and biology.” (Id. ¶ 2). He has four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering. (Id. ¶ 1). He is a resident of Massachusetts, where he operates the International Center for Integrative Systems (a research and education center) and serves as the Chairman and CEO of CytoSolve, Inc. (Id. ¶ 2).

         Floor64, Inc., is a California corporation that operates a website called “Techdirt.” (Compl. ¶ 6). Michael Masnick is a California resident and the founder and CEO of Techdirt, as well as an editor of the website. (Id. ¶ 7). Leigh Beadon is a resident of Toronto, Canada, and a writer at Techdirt. (Id. ¶ 8).

         2. Ayyadurai's Electronic Mail System

         According to the complaint, in 1978, while working as a Research Fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Ayyadurai “created email.” (Id. ¶ 13). The complaint defines his creation as “a computer program that created an electronic version of a paper-based interoffice mail system, which allowed mail to be sent electronically and consisted of the Inbox, Outbox, Drafts, Folders, Memo, Attachments, Carbon Copies, Blind Carbon Copies (i.e., “To:, ” “From:, ” “Dated:, ” “Subject:, ” “Body:, ” “Cc:, ” Bcc:”), Return Receipt, Address Book, Groups, Forward, Compose, Edit, Reply, Delete, Archive, Sort, Bulk Distribution, etc.” (Id.). He named the program “email, ” because it was “the ‘electronic' (or ‘e') version of the interoffice paper-based ‘mail' system” that was used by physicians at the medical school. (Id. ¶ 16). According to the complaint, he was the first person to use that term. (Id.). In 1982, he obtained copyright registrations for his e-mail code and user's manual, which he contends were the first two works registered under the title “email.” (Id. ¶¶ 17, 23).

         3. Ayyadurai's Recognition as the Inventor of E-Mail

         A variety of sources, both academic and in the popular press, have recognized Ayyadurai as the inventor of e-mail. (Id. ¶¶ 18-21). In 2011, TIME magazine published an article titled “The Man Who Invented Email, ” which stated that “email-as we currently know it-was born” when Ayyadurai created his electronic-communication system in 1978. (Compl. Ex. E). In the article, Ayyadurai recounted how he created functions such as “cc, ” “bcc, ” and the ability to attach documents in order to replicate the functions that doctors were already using in the paper-based interoffice mail system at the University of Medicine and Dentistry. (Id.).

         In 2012, Wired magazine published an article titled “Who Invented Email? Just Ask . . . Noam Chomsky.” (Compl. Ex. F). The article began by stating, “Who invented email? That's a question sure to spark some debate.” It recounted the debate concerning the creation of e-mail, providing an overview of the various electronic messaging systems that could be considered the “original” e-mail, and quoted Tom Van Vleck, the creator of one of those systems, stating that “[t]here seems to be little disagreement over who wrote what, and approximately when. . . . The argument is over what to call things.” (Id.). The article noted that Chomsky was “putting his weight behind V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, ” but stated that “the debate will no doubt continue.” (Id.).

         According to the complaint, Ayyadurai was recognized as the creator of e-mail in a 2015 CBS television program, as well as in statements and publications by various individuals, including Leslie Michelson, the Director of the High Performance Computing Center at Rutgers University; Desh Deshpande, the Founder of Sycamore Networks and Co-Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Deborah Nightingale, a former professor of engineering systems at MIT. (See Compl. ¶¶ 21, 22, 25, 27).

         4. Techdirt's Allegedly Defamatory Articles

         Between September 2014 and November 2016, Techdirt published 14 articles about Ayyadurai. Thirteen were written by Mike Masnick and one was written by Leigh Beadon. (See Id. ¶¶ 34-47). The article written by Beadon consists primarily of re-posted comments submitted by readers in response to other articles on Techdirt, along with some commentary by Beadon. (See Compl. Ex. S).

         The complaint identifies 84 allegedly defamatory statements contained within the 14 articles. (See Compl. ¶¶ 34-47).[1] Most of the allegedly defamatory statements are statements to the effect that Ayyadurai's claim to have invented e-mail is false. For example, one article states that Ayyadurai is “perpetuating a ‘fake story'”; another states that he “and his friends “misrepresent reality [and] they fraudulently make claims that are easily debunked”; and another states that “Ayyadurai's claim that he invented email is complete bullshit. It's not true. Not even remotely.” (Id. ¶¶ 34(c), 36(a), 45(a)).

         Other statements identified in the complaint suggest that Ayyadurai has misrepresented the significance of a copyright registration and has misrepresented a 1977 RAND report on electronic messaging written by Dave Crocker. For example, one article states that Ayyadurai “misrepresents what a copyright registration means”; another states that it is “absolutely false” that “the ‘US government officially recognized Ayyadurai as the inventor of email' in 1982”; and another states that Ayyadurai's claim to have invented e-mail “prey[s] on . . . an almost fraudulent misquoting of Dave Crocker.” (Id. ¶¶ 34(f), 36(b), 37(b)). There are also statements that Ayyadurai's claim has changed over time; that his entire identity is based upon his false claim; and that he accuses his opponents of racism (he is originally from India). (See, e.g., Id. ¶¶ 36(h), 41(b), 41(g)).

         B. Procedural Background

         Ayyadurai filed the complaint in this action on January 4, 2017. The complaint asserts three claims, each against all three defendants: libel (Count One); intentional interference with prospective economic advantage (“IIPEA”) (Count Two); and intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) (Count Three).

         On February 17, defendants Floor64 and Masnick moved to strike the complaint pursuant to the California anti-SLAPP statute and to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On March 14, defendant Beadon also filed separate motions to strike and to dismiss.

         II. Legal Standard

         On a motion to dismiss, the Court “must assume the truth of all well-plead[ed] facts and give plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences therefrom.” Ruiz v. Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp., 496 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2007) (citing Rogan v. Menino, 175 F.3d 75, 77 (1st Cir. 1999)). To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must state a claim that is plausible on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. at 555 (citations omitted). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Dismissal is appropriate if the facts as alleged do not “possess enough heft to show that plaintiff is entitled to relief.” Ruiz Rivera v. Pfizer Pharm., LLC, 521 F.3d 76, 84 (1st Cir. 2008) (quotations and original alterations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Motions to Strike Pursuant to California Anti-SLAPP Statute

         Defendants first contend that the complaint should be struck pursuant to the California anti-SLAPP (“strategic litigation against public participation”) statute, Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16. Plaintiff contends that under the applicable choice-of-law principles, Massachusetts law applies, and therefore the California statute is irrelevant.[2] The parties agree that if Massachusetts law applies, the conduct alleged does not fall within the scope of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute.

         The “initial task of a choice-of-law analysis is to determine whether there is an actual conflict between the substantive law of the interested jurisdictions.” Levin v. Dalva Bros., Inc., 459 F.3d 68, 73 (1st Cir. 2006). Here, there is a clear conflict between the California and Massachusetts statutes. Under the Massachusetts statute, parties may move to dismiss any claims against them that are based on that “party's exercise of its right of petition under the Constitution of the United States or of the commonwealth.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 59H. See North Am. Expositions Co. v. Corcoran, 452 Mass. 852, 862 (2009) (defining “petitioning” to include “statements made to influence, inform, or at the very least, reach governmental bodies-either directly or indirectly” (internal quotation marks omitted)). The California statute, by contrast, is considerably broader, and allows parties to move to strike whenever they are sued for an “act in furtherance of a person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue” or “an issue of public interest.” Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16(e) (emphasis added).

         Next, the Court must apply Massachusetts choice-of-law principles to determine which state's law should apply.[3] “Massachusetts state courts apply ‘a functional choice of law approach that responds to the interests of the parties, the States involved, and the interstate system as a whole.'” Reicher v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co. of Am., 360 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2004) (quoting Bushkin Assocs., Inc. v. Raytheon Co., 393 Mass. 622, 631 (1985)). That approach is guided by the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971), and considers factors such as those set forth in § 6 of the Restatement. See Bushkin Assocs., 393 Mass. at 632, 634 (“Factors under § 6 that are said to be relevant to the choice of the applicable rule of law include: ‘(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems, (b) the relevant policies of the forum, (c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue, (d) the protection of justified expectations, (e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law, (f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and (g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.'” (quoting Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971))). In addition to those factors, Massachusetts courts “feel free . . . to borrow from any of the various lists to help focus our attention on the considerations particularly relevant to the case before us.” Id. at 634.

         Section 150 of the Restatement applies to claims involving multistate defamation. It provides that “[t]he rights and liabilities that arise from defamatory matter in any . . . aggregate communication are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to the particular issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in § 6.” Restatement (Second) Conflict of Laws § 150(1). It further states that “[w]hen a natural person claims that he has been defamed by an aggregate communication, the state of most significant relationship will usually be the state where the person was domiciled at the time, if the matter complained of was published in that state." Id. § 150(2). Thus, there is effectively a presumption that the law of the state of the plaintiff's domicile will apply unless some other state “has a greater interest in the determination of the particular issue, ” as determined in accordance with the factors set forth in § 6 and “the purpose sought to be achieved by [the interested states'] relevant local law rules and of the particular issue involved.” Id. § 150 cmt. b (citing id. § 145 cmts. c-d).

         Applying § 150 here, there is a presumption that the law of Massachusetts will apply.[4] First, defendants published allegedly defamatory statements in a form of aggregate communication, a website. Second, plaintiff was domiciled in Massachusetts at the time. Finally, the website, which is accessible by anyone anywhere with an Internet connection, was published in Massachusetts.

         The Court must next determine whether another state has a greater interest in the particular issue presented, according to the factors set forth in § 6. In this context, the most significant of those factors appears to be the relevant policies of the states. See Diamond Ranch Acad., Inc. v. Filer, 117 F.Supp.3d 1313, 1321 (D. Utah 2015). Here, each state has a strong, and conflicting, interest. As to California, it has clearly “expressed a strong interest in enforcing its anti-SLAPP law to ‘encourage continued participation in matters of public significance' and to protect against ‘a disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise' of constitutionally protected speech.” Sarver, 813 F.3d at 899 (quoting Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16(a)). That interest would presumably be disserved by applying Massachusetts law and permitting this case to proceed. Massachusetts, on the other hand, has an interest in protecting its citizens from tortious conduct. By enacting an anti-SLAPP statute that applies only to claims involving a person's exercise of his or her right of petition, and not to claims involving a person's exercise of free-speech rights more generally, Massachusetts has attempted to balance the encouragement of protected speech with the desire to protect those who are harmed by defamatory statements. See Cardno ChemRisk, LLC v. Foytlin, 476 Mass. 479, 487 (2017) (“[T]he anti-SLAPP statute . . . protects those looking to ‘advance[e] causes in which they believe, as well as those seeking to protect their own private rights” (citation omitted)). That interest would be disserved by applying California law and striking the complaint. Under the circumstances presented here, there is no reason to favor California's policy over that of Massachusetts.

         None of the other factors under § 6 are sufficient to overcome the presumption favoring application of Massachusetts law. The parties each have justified expectations that their respective home-state laws would apply; plaintiff is a Massachusetts resident with no apparent ties to California; and the alleged tortious conduct occurred in California. In addition, ensuring the “certainty, predictability and uniformity of result” and “ease in the determination and application of the applicable law” favors adhering to the presumption set forth in § 150(2). Restatement (Second) Conflict of Laws § 150 cmt. b (citing id. § 6).

         In summary, defendants have not overcome the presumption that Massachusetts law should apply. Accordingly, the motions to strike will be denied, and the Court will apply Massachusetts law to the claims.

         B. Libel (Count One)

         All defendants have moved to dismiss the libel claims against them for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.[5] They contend that the complaint fails to make plausible allegations that the statements at issue are false; that the statements are protected under the First Amendment; and that the complaint fails to plausibly allege that the statements were made with actual malice. Defendant Beadon has also moved to dismiss the libel claim based upon the article that he authored on the ground that it is barred by § 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1).

         1. Legal Framework

         “Modern defamation law is a complex mixture of common-law rules and constitutional doctrines.” Pan Am. Sys., Inc. v. Atlantic Ne. Rails & Ports, Inc., 804 F.3d 59, 64 (1st Cir. 2015). Under Massachusetts law, “[d]efamation is the publication, either orally or in writing, of a statement concerning the plaintiff which is false and causes damage to the plaintiff.” Yohe v. Nugent, 321 F.3d 35, 39-40 (1st Cir. 2003) (citing McAvoy v. Shufrin, 401 Mass. 593, 597 (1988)).

         To establish a defamation claim, a plaintiff must satisfy four elements. First, to be “defamatory, ” the statement must “hold the plaintiff up to contempt, hatred, scorn, or ridicule or tend to impair his standing in the community, at least to his discredit in the minds of a considerable and respectable class in the community.” Id. at 40 (quoting Tartaglia v. Townsend, 19 Mass.App.Ct. 693, 696 (1985)) (internal quotation marks omitted); Phelan v. May Dep't. Stores Co., 443 Mass. 52, 56 (2004). Second, to satisfy the “publication” element, “the statement must have been [made] to at least one other individual other than the one defamed.” Yohe, 321 F.3d at 40 (citing Brauer v. Globe Newspaper Co., 351 Mass. 53, 56 (1966)); Phelan, 443 Mass. at 56. “Third, where the speech is a matter of public concern, a defamation plaintiff must prove not only that the statements were defamatory, but also that they were false.” Yohe, 321 F.3d at 40 (citing Dulgarian v. Stone, 420 Mass. 843, 847 (1995)).[6] Fourth, “the plaintiff must show that he suffered special damages and must set forth these damages specifically.” Id. (citing Lynch v. Lyons, 303 Mass. 116, 119 (1939)). However, “the imputation of a crime is defamatory per se, requiring no proof of special damages.” Phelan, 443 Mass. at 56.

         “On the constitutional side, the Supreme Court-reading the First Amendment (made binding on the states through the Fourteenth)-‘has hedged about defamation suits' with lots of ‘safeguards designed to protect a vigorous market in ideas and opinions.'” Pan Am. Sys., 804 F.3d at 65 (quoting Desnick v. Am. Broad. Co., 44 F.3d 1345, 1355 (7th Cir. 1995)). First, as already noted, in cases involving matters of public concern, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the communications at issue are false. See Philadelphia Newspapers, 475 U.S. at 776. Second, because statements must be false to be actionable, “defamatory statements are not punishable unless they are capable of being proved true or false.” Pan Am Sys., 804 F.3d at 65. Accordingly, subjective statements and statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment as long as they do not “present[] or impl[y] the existence of facts which are capable of being proven true or false.” Levinsky's, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 127 F.3d 122, 127 (1st Cir. 1997); Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 18-19 (1990). Similarly, vague language that is subject to multiple interpretations is generally not actionable. See Gray v. St. Martin's Press, Inc., 221 F.3d 243, 248 (1st Cir. 2000); Levinsky's Inc., 127 F.3d at 129. Third, the First Amendment also protects “statements that cannot ‘reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts' about an individual, ” including “imaginative expression” and “rhetorical hyperbole.” Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 20 (quoting Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 50 (1988)) (alteration in original). Finally, “where a statement of ‘opinion' on a matter of public concern reasonably implies false and defamatory facts regarding public figures or officials, those individuals must show that such statements were made with knowledge of their false implications or with reckless disregard of their truth, ” or, in other words, with “actual malice.” Id.

         Here, the principal dispute is not whether plaintiff has satisfied the traditional, common-law elements of a defamation claim, but on whether the speech at issue is protected under the First Amendment.

         2. Whether the Heightened Standards for “Public Figures” andMatters of Public Concern” Apply

         As a preliminary matter, the Court must determine whether plaintiff is a public figure and whether the subject matter of the statements at issue is a matter of public concern.

         a. Public Figure

         In the interest of protecting public debate, the First Amendment prohibits public officials or public figures from recovering damages for defamatory statements unless they can “prove[] that the statement[s] [were] made with ‘actual malice'-that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964) (applying that standard to public officials); accord Curtis Publ'g Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 154-55 (applying same standard to public figures); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342 (1974). “Public officials” are generally limited to high-level government employees, see Stone v. Essex Cnty. Newspapers, Inc., 367 Mass. 849, 863 (1975), while “public figures” include those who “command[] sufficient continuing public interest and [have] sufficient access to the means of counter-argument to be able to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies of the defamatory statements.” Curtis Publ'g Co., 388 U.S. at 155.

         Public figures can be either “general-purpose public figure[s]”-those who have achieved “such pervasive fame or notoriety” that they are public figures “for all purposes and in all contexts”-or “limited-purpose public figure[s]”-those who “voluntarily inject[]” themselves or are “drawn into a particular public controversy” and thereby become public figures “for a limited range of issues” defined by their “participation in the particular controversy giving rise to the defamation.” Lluberes v. Uncommon Prods., LLC, 663 F.3d 6, 13 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Gertz, 418 U.S. at 351-52). The controversy at issue “must predate the alleged defamation.” Id. at 14.

         The parties do not dispute that plaintiff is at least a “limited-purpose” public figure for the purpose of the controversy over who invented e-mail. Through his own actions, including publishing books, participating in interviews, and posting on his own website, he has clearly “thrust [himself] to the forefront” of the controversy “in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved” in it. Gertz, 418 U.S. at 345. Furthermore, the complaint itself alleges that he “is a world-renowned scientist, inventor, lecturer, philanthropist and entrepreneur.” (Compl. ¶ 1). Accordingly, because plaintiff is a public figure, the complaint must plausibly allege actual malice.

         b. Matter of Public Concern

         The First Amendment also requires that if the statements at issue relate to matters “of public concern, ” then the “plaintiff[] must shoulder the burden of showing that the comments are false.” Pan Am Sys., 804 F.3d at 66. “To qualify as a matter of public concern, the speech (based on the content, form, and context) must touch on issues in which the public (even a small slice of the public) might be interested, as distinct, say, from purely personal squabbles.” Id. Matters of public concern are “those that can be ‘fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” Levinsky's, 127 F.3d at 132. “[T]he relevant community need not be very large and the relevant concern need not be of paramount importance or national scope. Rather, ‘it is sufficient that the speech concern matters in which even a relatively small segment of the general public might be interested.'” Id. (quoting Roe v. City of San Francisco, 109 F.3d 578, 585 (9th Cir. 1997)).

         Here, the record clearly establishes that the statements at issue involve a matter of public concern. The complaint refers to numerous articles (in addition to those authored by defendants) discussing plaintiff's claim to have invented e-mail. (See Compl. ¶¶ 18-21). Furthermore, a number of the challenged comments were made in response to other articles and television programs discussing, and supporting, plaintiff's claim. Finally, the number of reader comments posted in response to defendants' articles indicates that at least “a relatively small segment of the general public” is interested in the topic of who invented e-mail. See Levinsky's, 127 F.3d at 132.

         Accordingly, the statements at issue relate to matters of public concern, and plaintiff therefore bears the burden of establishing their falsity.

         3. Whether the Complaint Plausibly Alleges Falsity

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint challenging statements made about a matter of public concern must not only allege that the statements are false, but also provide “factual underpinning[s] to support that claim.” Pan Am Sys., Inc. v. Hardenbergh, 871 F.Supp.2d 6, 16 (D. Me. 2012) (holding that mere allegations that statements are false is insufficient under Iqbal and Twombly). Here, the complaint alleges that plaintiff “created email: a computer program that created an electronic version of a paper-based interoffice mail system, ” and that “[h]e was the first person to create [the term ‘email'].” (Compl. ¶¶ 13, 16).

         Whether those allegations are sufficient to satisfy plaintiff's burden to allege falsity with factual specificity is far from clear. As set forth below, the articles at issue do not dispute that plaintiff created an e-mail system. Rather, they dispute whether plaintiff should properly be characterized as the inventor of e-mail based on that creation. Accordingly, it is not clear that the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to show that the statements at issue are false. In any event, even assuming that the allegations of falsity are sufficient, the challenged statements are nonetheless protected under the First Amendment.

         4. Whether the Allegedly Defamatory Statements Are Protected Under the First Amendment

         a. Statements That Plaintiff Did Not Invent E-Mail

         The majority of the allegedly defamatory statements identified in the complaint state, in various ways, that plaintiff's claim to have invented e-mail is false. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶¶ 34(c) (“fake”); 36(a) (“fraudulent[]”); 37(e) (“a lie”); 43(a) (“bogus”)). For the following reasons, those statements are protected because they are not provably false, are subjective statements that do not imply knowledge of objective facts, or are statements involving figurative language or hyperbole.

         (1) Statements That Are Not Capable of Being Proved True or False

         “[D]efamatory statements are not punishable unless they are capable of being proved true or false.” Pan Am Sys., 804 F.3d at 65. The statements here are not capable of being so proved.

         First, by its nature, the question of who invented e-mail is not subject to one, and only one, “true” answer. The answer depends upon how “e-mail” itself is defined. Plaintiff defines “e-mail” to include features such as an inbox, outbox, folders, a “to:” line, a “from:” line, a “subject:” line, the body of the message and the ability to include attachments, and the ability to copy (“cc”) or blind copy (“bcc”) other recipients. (See Compl. ¶ 13). However, that is not the only definition. For example, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “e-mail” in far more general terms as “a means or system for transmitting messages electronically (as between two computers on a network.” E-mail, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/e-mail (last visited Aug. 31, 2017). Similarly, in the context of a patent dispute, the Federal Circuit has held that “a person of ordinary skill in the art would have recognized that an electronic mail message must include a destination address and must have the capacity to include an address of an originating processor, message content (such as text or an attachment), and a subject.” In re NTP, Inc., 654 F.3d 1279, 1289 (Fed. Cir. 2011). Accordingly, whether plaintiff's claim to have invented e-mail is “fake” depends upon the operative definition of “e-mail.” Because that definition does not have a single, objectively correct answer, the claim is incapable of being proved true or false.

         Second, many of the statements at issue are incapable of being proved false by virtue of the language that they use. The First Circuit has held that whether something is a “fake” or a “phony” may be “unprovable, since those adjectives admit of numerous interpretations.” Phantom Touring, Inc. v. Affiliated Publ'ns, 953 F.2d 724 728 (1st Cir. 1992); accord Levinsky's, 127 F.3d at 129-130 (holding that use of the word “trashy” to describe a clothing store is not actionable, and stating that “[t]he vaguer a term, or the more meanings it reasonably can convey, the less likely it is to be actionable”).[7] Similarly, in McCabe, the First Circuit held that because “the word ‘scam' does not have a precise meaning[, ] . . . the assertion “X is a scam” [is] incapable of being proved true or false.” McCabe v. Rattiner, 814 F.2d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1987). There, an article referred to a timeshare resort development owned by the plaintiff as a “scam.” Id. at 840-41. In holding that the use of the word was not actionable, the court explained:

Rattiner extensively and accurately described his encounter with the resort salespeople, thereby disclosing the basis for his assertion that it was a scam. Readers may have disagreed with the conclusion that it was a scam, but they could not have said that the conclusion was false, because there is no core meaning of scam to which Rattiner's facts and allegations can be compared. Is it a scam to promise a lobster dinner and then only give it after protest? Is it a scam to gross approximately $9 million from a 25 unit resort? The answer depends on the meaning given to the word “scam.”

Id. at 843.[8]

         Here, even a reader who agrees with defendants' view that plaintiff should not be credited as the sole inventor of e-mail may not agree that his claim is “fake” or “bogus.” One person may consider a claim to be “fake” if any element of it is not true or if it involves a slight twisting of the facts, while another person may only consider a claim to be “fake” only if no element of it is true. Thus, whether statements such as “Dr. Ayyadurai is perpetuating a ‘fake story' with respect to his claims of invention of email, ” (Compl. ¶ 34(c)), are provably true or false depends not only on how one defines “e-mail, ” but also on how one defines “fake.” Because both terms, in this context, are imprecise, the statements are not actionable.

         (2) Subjective Statements That Do Not Imply Knowledge of Objective Facts

         The statements at issue are also protected as subjective statements. “[E]ven a provably false statement is not actionable if it ‘is plain that the speaker is expressing a subjective view, an interpretation, a theory, conjecture, or surmise, rather than claiming to be in possession of objectively verifiable facts . . . .'” Riley v. Harr, 292 F.3d 282, 289 (1st Cir. 2002) (quoting Gray v. St. Martin's Press, Inc., 221 F.3d 243, 248 (1st Cir. 2000)) (second alteration in original). Thus, “defamation cannot arise where the speaker communicates the non-defamatory facts that undergird his opinion.” Piccone vs. Bartels, 785 F.3d 766, 771 (1st Cir. 2015); accord Riley, 292 F.3d 282, 289 (“[W]hen an author outlines the facts available to him, thus making it clear that the challenged statements represent his own interpretation of those facts and leaving the reader free to draw his own conclusions, those statements are generally protected by the First Amendment.” (quoting Partington v. Bugliosi, 56 F.3d 1147, 1156-57 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         The articles at issue provide all of the relevant facts on which defendants rely in reaching the conclusion that plaintiff's claim is false. For example, the September 2, 2014 article described the history of electronic messaging, including rudimentary systems that were created as early as 1965, and provided hyperlinks to relevant background information. (Compl. Ex. G at 1). The September 4, 2014 article similarly provided information on the history of the use of the word “email” as well as information concerning a change over time in how plaintiff defined the term on his website, again providing hyperlinks to relevant information. (Compl. Ex. I). In the November 3, 2016 post, Masnick wrote that plaintiff's claim is “not true” based on his observation that “[b]asically every feature that he put in the application was previously discussed on open mailing lists and RFCs [Requests for Comments] about the internet and the messaging systems that would be grafted onto it-sometimes many years earlier.” (Compl. Ex. R at 1) (emphasis in original).[9]

         By providing the full factual basis for his opinion, the articles cannot reasonably be interpreted to suggest that the author had access to information about plaintiff's claim that was not accessible to others. As the First Circuit has explained, this is a “crucial distinction” between cases such as this and cases that reach an opposite result, such as Milkovich. See Phantom Touring, 953 F.2d at 730-31. In Milkovich, “the author of a newspaper column charging that a high school wrestling coach had lied about his behavior at a meet informed his readers that he was in ‘a unique position' to know that the coach had lied because he had personally observed the relevant events.” Riley, 292 F.3d at 290. Here, by contrast, as in Phantom Touring, there is ...


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