The Supreme Court today revived a $4-billion lawsuit by a millionaire inventor who says an ABC television program falsely portrayed him as a liar and hypocrite.
The justices told a federal appeals court to restudy Arthur Jones’ libel suit against ABC over a 1987 report by the “20-20" program on the fate of 63 baby elephants Jones rescued from death in Africa.
The justices said the case should be reconsidered in light of their June ruling that the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech did not “create a wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be labeled opinion.”
The June decision, however, did not strip away constitutional immunity for pure expressions of opinion that cannot be proved true or false.
Jones, the inventor of Nautilus exercise machines, was the subject of a “20-20" broadcast on his airlift of the 63 elephants from Zimbabwe to the Ocala, Fla., farm he calls Jumbolair.
The elephants had been marked for death as part of a culling, or herd-thinning, operation.
The elephants lived on Jones’ Ocala estate until the summer of 1986, when the herd began to be dispersed.
The 1987 report aired by “20-20" was preceded by a comment by host Barbara Walters that it would discuss “the fate of some baby elephants to whom a promise was not kept.”
According to Jones’ suit, that comment and others contained in the report “falsely cast him as a liar and a hypocrite, and accused him of animal cruelty.”
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich dismissed the suit before it reached a jury. She ruled that some of the comments cited in the lawsuit were not defamatory, and that those that might be were expressions of opinion, not statements of fact.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in December.
In the appeal acted on today, Jones’ lawyers contended that the 1987 ABC broadcast was nothing but a “hatchet job” aimed at making him the villain in a sad story.