A federal judge has thrown out a libel lawsuit a son of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas filed last year against Foreign Policy magazine, charging that a commentary the journal published leveled unfounded allegations of corruption.
The lawsuit brought by businessman Yasser Abbas was dismissed Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who said the case could not go forward because of a 2010 District of Columbia law that sets a high and early hurdle for suits relating to "advocacy on issues of public interest."
The suit stemmed from a commentary Foreign Policy published in June 2012 entitled, "The Brothers Abbas: Are the sons of the Palestinian president growing rich off their father's system?" The piece was written by Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Under the so-called Anti-SLAPP law (limiting "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation"), Abbas had to show at the outset of the case that he was likely to prevail on the merits. In a 37-page opinion (posted here), Sullivan found that Abbas could not meet that burden.
"The question of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, and the level of corruption in the PA under both Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, is fundamentally a matter of the public, not private, interest," Sullivan wrote. "The question of whether the sons of the President of the Palestinian Authority are enriching themselves by virtue of their political ties, and whether some of their wealth can be traced to U.S. tax dollars is part of that issue."
Sullivan said Abbas's suit could not go forward because provocative questions Schanzer asked in the commentary—like "Are the sons of the Palestinian president growing rich off their father's system?; and..."Have they enriched themselves at the expense of regular Palestinians and even U.S. taxpayers?" —were "rhetorical" and did not amount to statements of fact. The judge also said the entire article was framed as an opinion piece.
"The reader could arrive at a number of different conclusions," wrote Sullivan, who sits in Washington, D.C. "That Mr. Abbas would prefer that readers do not answer the questions in the affirmative is not sufficient to support his defamation claim."
While the judge threw the case out under the anti-SLAPP law, it seems likely he would also have tossed it out on a routine motion to dismiss. However, it's possible the magazine and Schanzer would have had to endure discovery requests and depositions before getting the case turned down.
Foreign Policy is owned by the Washington Post company, a link which created a parallel with litigation the Post's flagship newspaper faced more than three decades ago.
In 1980, William Tavoulareas, the head of Mobil Oil, and his son Peter, sued the newspaper over an article arguing that Peter had won shipping business from Mobil as a result of his father's position. That case went to trial and resulted in a $2 million verdict against the Post. However, the judge who presided over the trial granted a post-trial motion tossing out the verdict and the suit.
In 1987—some eight years after the article in dispute was published, the D.C. Circuit sitting en banc, upheld the decision to toss out the verdict.
One of the lawyers defending Foreign Policy in the Abbas suit, Kevin Baine, was part of the team that defended the Washington Post in the marathon Tavoulareas litigation.
Disclosures: The editor of Foreign Policy at the time the Schanzer commentary was published, Susan Glasser, now serves as the editor of the forthcoming POLITICO Magazine. Also, some of the attorneys for Foreign Policy and the Washington Post Company have served as counsel on unrelated matters for POLITICO and its affiliated companies.