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The Satanic Temple

Guest Article

Lawsuits, The Satanic Temple

December 1, 2023

Ninth Circuit gives Satanic Temple’s SLAPP suit mixed response

Federal appellate court affirms that failed cyberpiracy accusations were bogus but grants TST another chance to make defamation claim against four former members

Jeremy Roller, attorney for the Defendants, told Law360:

My clients are delighted that the Ninth Circuit affirmed Judge Jones’ dismissal of TST’s unfounded Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act claim. While we are disappointed that the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal of the defamation claim, we are pleased that the court based its disposition on TST’s failure to specify the allegedly defamatory statements. If TST elects to continue pursuing that meritless claim, we are confident it will be dismissed again based upon the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine or other grounds.

After oral arguments earlier this month, we thought we’d be waiting a lot longer for the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court to give us any sort of opinion on The Satanic Temple’s appeal of their federal SLAPP suit that was dismissed for a second time in January.

Thankfully we did not have to wait so long as we’d thought.

[CourtListener]

So, as expected based on the quality of the arguments in the brief and the way the oral arguments in front of the three-judge panel went, the court upheld the cyberpiracy dismissal, with a little judicial shade included:

In this case, however, the alleged infringement regards a post-domain path, not a domain name within the meaning of Section 1127. Moreover, contrary to The Satanic Temple’s novel argument, domain registration is not the same as registration for a social media website. Lastly, even if The Satanic Temple’s Facebook page constitutes a domain name under the Act, liability only attaches if the defendant “is the domain name registrant or that registrant’s authorized licensee.” … The defendants in this case were not the domain name registrants as required under the Act.

The “novel argument” that the Temple tried to make was that TST owned any Facebook or other social media profile that had “The Satanic Temple” in a username. This was a new argument because it is complete nonsense.

However, the defamation claim is getting kicked back down to federal court to give TST another go at amending their complaint now specifically for defamation.

The District Court dismissed the defamation claim under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, but it is unclear based on the Complaint whether that doctrine applies. The defamation claim merely states that “[b]y falsely ascribing extremist ideologies and affiliations to TST, Defendants published and republished false and defamatory statements about TST and TST’s employees.” Because this claim potentially invokes “religious controversies that incidentally affect civil rights,” … TST must specify which statements are alleged to be false and defamatory. We assume there will be an amended complaint to this effect. Only then may the District Court determine whether there are religious issues that warrant invoking the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

So far The Satanic Temple has been given the opportunity to make a complaint, an amended complaint, a second amended complaint, a dismissal with leave to amend (that they did not exercise), an appellate court brief, and a state court complaint.

Clearly, it’s still our contention that TST has been given plenty of chances already, but the judges felt more generous.

As a legal matter, this is not really a victory for TST because there is a reason they have not and never bother to actually specify which statements about them are false and defamatory (“The final claim in the initial complaint is an utterly laughable Defamation claim“), but as a practical matter, it certainly is a victory because it allows the Temple to make yet more frivolous claims we have to rebut, or more to the point, pay lawyers to rebut.

The last matter of subject matter jurisdiction relates to how much money is at issue because without reaching the threshold of $75,000, this would be an issue for state courts to deal with, not federal courts.

Although the District Court found that The Satanic Temple is a citizen of Massachusetts and Defendants-Appellees are citizens of Washington, the record is insufficiently developed regarding whether the value of the injunctive relief and punitive damages sought in the defamation claim satisfies the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. This inquiry into the jurisdictional amount must be conducted before the defamation claim may be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Punitive damages are not available on a defamation claim under Washington law. We think the judges were sloppy or just got it flat out wrong, but that may be correctable.  

If The Satanic Temple were amendable to it, we could just move this surviving defamation claim into the state case TST filed against us in April of this year and deal with it all there, but since we contend the whole point is to hurt us financially and harm us in general, that seems unlikely.

While this wasn’t the ideal scenario (being done with the federal court case completely would have been a great load off of us), having a split decision, with TST only being given yet more chances than they deserve (and are most likely to immediately fuck up), is definitely better than it could have gone. 


Oral arguments for United Federation of Churches LLC v. David Johnson (23-35060) in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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