Heavy hitters in U.S. media joined prominent First Amendment scholars to file two amicus briefs challenging last summer’s jury verdict that favored former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in his defamation trial in St. Paul.
The friend-of-the-court media brief, filed with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, characterizes the $1.3 million jury award to Ventura as unprecedented, with no basis in common law.
The scholars’ filing faults U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle’s instructions to the jury.
The briefs support Taya Kyle, widow of Chris Kyle, author of the bestselling memoir “American Sniper.”
Ventura’s lawyers convinced the jury in a 10-2 decision that he had been defamed by Chris Kyle, who wrote in the book that he punched Ventura and knocked him down in a California bar after Ventura made disparaging remarks about Navy SEALs and the U.S. government.
Ventura denied the incident happened.
He was awarded $1.8 million, including $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for Kyle’s unjust enrichment. Taya Kyle, who oversees her husband’s estate, has appealed the decision to the 8th Circuit.
The brief by 30 media organizations, filed Tuesday, is signed by Floyd Abrams, a well-known First Amendment attorney who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case.
They said they are concerned about the negative impact on media organizations of “unjustified and potentially crippling awards” such as this one.
The other brief, written on behalf of eight scholars and filed Monday, includes Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at the University of California Irvine.
Joseph Daly, emeritus professor of law at Hamline University, who has followed the Ventura case, said that the amicus signers are “extremely impressive and without a doubt the Eighth Circuit judges will read these amicus briefs very, very carefully.”
Among the news organizations that signed the media brief are the New York Times, the Washington Post, the American Society of News Editors, National Public Radio, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
In challenging the $1.3 million unjust enrichment award, Abrams contends it is unprecedented in a libel case for jurors to award a portion of the book profits to Ventura.
“An award of profits has nothing to do with the harm suffered by the plaintiff; it is punishment, plain and simple,” he wrote.
The media brief questions the assumptions in the verdict but does not challenge the $500,000 defamation award.
However, the scholars in their amicus brief, written by attorney Leonard Niehoff, urge the 8th Circuit to reverse the entire jury decision, contending that the threshold of defamation is very high and that Judge Kyle gave the jury improper instructions.
Niehoff wrote that to prove defamation, Ventura had to prove that Chris Kyle knew his account was false or had serious doubts about it, but recklessly wrote it anyway.
Niehoff said Judge Kyle did not adequately explain the issue, and when jurors submitted follow-up questions he did not properly answer them.
Court Anderson, one of Ventura’s lawyers, said he had not yet read the amicus briefs. But he added, “We’re confident the jury verdict will be upheld by the 8th Circuit. This case has never been a case of the media publishing an inaccurate statement. Instead this case is about a first-person account from Mr. [Chris] Kyle that the jury found to be a complete fabrication.”