Don King, one of the greatest promoters in boxing history, suffered a serious blow last week when a Florida appeals court refused to revive his defamation suit against ESPN.
The appeals court said King failed to present evidence that the sports network acted with actual malice, a legal requirement that must be met by public figures seeking to prove they've been defamed. The plaintiff must show that the defendant knowingly uttered falsehoods or spoke in reckless disregard of whether the material was true or false.
King sued ESPN Inc., ESPN Productions Inc., ESPN Classic Inc. and their parent company Walt Disney Co. after an ESPN "SportsCentury" program about his life and career aired in 2004. The program featured quotes from Don Elbaum, a fellow boxing promoter, and Jack Newfield, the late King critic who wrote the 1995 book Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King.
Elbaum stated on the program that in the early 1970s, King organized a benefit exhibition involving Muhammad Ali for Forest City Hospital in Cleveland. Elbaum said the hospital received only $1,500 from more than $80,000 in ticket sales. Newfield described an encounter with King in which King allegedy threatened to kill him.
In his 2005 lawsuit, King said these statements — as well as others attributed to Elbaum — were false. He argued that ESPN failed to investigate whether some of the statements were true or false. King claimed that ESPN producers planned to produce a negative story about him and referred to him in e-mails as a “greedy conniver.” He also noted e-mails in which ESPN producers urged that King be portrayed as “more evil.”
A Florida trial court dismissed the defamation claims, finding that King had failed to show that the statements were false and that the statements were made with actual malice. On appeal, the Court of Appeal of Florida, 4th District, unanimously agreed in its June 30 opinion in Don King Productions Inc. v. The Walt Disney Company.
The appeals court upheld the lower court not on the basis that the statements were true, but on the actual-malice ground. “An intention to portray a public figure in a negative light, even when motivated by ill will or evil intent, is not sufficient to show actual malice unless the publisher intended to inflict harm through knowing or reckless falsehood," the court wrote.
King had also argued that ESPN should have investigated Elbaum's and Newfield's statements more extensively before broadcasting them. But the Florida appeals court pointed out that “failure to investigate, without more, does not constitute actual malice.”
The court concluded that King failed to show there was “a genuine issue of material fact … which would allow a jury to find actual malice by clear and convincing evidence.”