MFIA Moves to Dismiss Defamation Claims Against Online News Site

Atmospheric photo of a courthouse

Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic is currently defending the online news site New Canaanite and its editor Michael Dinan against defamation claims brought against them by New York attorney Farva Jafri for reporting on a parking dispute. The case is part of MFIA’s Local News Initiative, which provides pro bono legal services to small and nonprofit news sites throughout New England.

The claims against MFIA’s clients are part of a broader lawsuit filed in federal court by Jafri, alleging that the town of New Canaan and various town officials discriminated against her on the basis of race. Jafri, who is Pakistani-American, alleges that the town and its officials singled her out in issuing her a parking ticket while she was working as an Uber driver. She also claims that a July 11, 2019 hearing at the New Canaan parking bureau upheld the ticket and imposed a fine in a racially discriminatory manner. Two years after the hearing, in July 2021, Jafri sued.

In addition to asserting claims for race discrimination against the town and its officials, Jafri’s complaint alleges that an article published by Dinan about the parking bureau hearing defames and casts her in a false light. Jafri further alleges that Dinan committed assault against her by holding his phone camera near her.

The clinic has moved to dismiss the claims against Dinan and New Canaanite on a number of grounds.

The clinic’s motion contends that Jafri’s defamation and false light claims are not supported by alleged facts sufficient to establish the existence of a claim, particularly because Jafri fails to specify the nature of Dinan’s allegedly false statements. The clinic also seeks dismissal of the defamation claim because it was filed more than two years after the publication of Dinan’s article, and challenges the adequacy of service of the complaint.

Citing Connecticut’s anti-strategic litigation against public participation (“anti-SLAPP”) statute, which protects parties from meritless lawsuits designed to chill free speech, the clinic asserted that the claims against its clients should be dismissed and costs and attorneys’ fees awarded to its clients.

In response to the deficiencies identified by the clinic’s motion, Jafri recently moved to amend her complaint. Apparently unconvinced by Jafri’s proposed amendments, the court has ordered Jafri to explain why they overcome all the clinic’s arguments.

“This case is a paradigm example of why the Local News Initiative is so important,” said Clinical Lecturer in Law and MFIA Local Journalism Fellow Stephen Stich ’17. “Small local news outlets shouldn’t have to choose between foregoing their reporting on controversial issues and facing meritless lawsuits that can break the bank.”

Daniel Betancourt ’22, a student in the clinic, added, “For news outlets like the New Canaanite, it is absolutely essential that they have space to breathe if they’re going to engage in any kind of meaningful and effective journalism. MFIA and the Local News Initiative help protect that space.”

With support from the Legal Clinics Fund and the Knight Foundation, the Local News Initiative assists investigative journalists and news publications who do not otherwise have access to legal resources, and trains the next generation of media lawyers.

The MFIA Clinic at Yale Law School is dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression through impact litigation, direct legal services, and policy work.