Supreme Court

21-0978 & 21-1039 

Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity v. Dickson consolidated for oral argument with Dickson v. Afiya Center

  • Case number: 21-0978 consolidated for oral argument with 21-1039.
  • Legal category: Intentional Torts
  • Subtype: Defamation
  • Set for oral argument: October 26, 2022

Case Summary

The primary issue in this appeal is whether an anti-abortion advocate is entitled to a TCPA dismissal of defamation claims brought for referring to certain abortion-related organizations as “criminal organizations.”

The Afiya Center, Texas Equal Access Fund, and Lilith Fund are abortion advocacy funds that provide information and financial assistance to those seeking an abortion. Mark Lee Dickson, an anti-abortion advocate, began campaigning for cities to enact ordinances declaring abortion to be illegal within city limits and designating certain organizations—specifically including the Funds—as “criminal organizations.” Following the passage of the ordinance in Waskom, Texas, Dickson made several statements reasserting that abortion was illegal and that the Funds were criminal organizations. After requesting a clarification from Dickson that he had no reason to believe that the Funds had committed a crime under federal or state law, the Funds brought two suits for defamation. Dickson filed motions to dismiss under the TCPA, which both trial courts denied.

Dickson appealed both cases. The court of appeals in one case, 21- 0978, reversed the denial of Dickson’s motion to dismiss. That court reasoned that Dickson’s statements were protected opinion or hyperbole because a reasonable person would not take his statements literally. The court of appeals in the other case, 21-1039, affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss. That court held that Dickson’s statements were actionable because a reasonable person would understand that Dickson meant his statements to be taken literally, and they were false.

Both parties filed petitions for review. Dickson argues that his statements were all true, since Texas’s pre-Roe v. Wade abortion statutes are still valid. These statutes, along with the local ordinances at issue, make it truthful to say that abortion is illegal and that the Funds are criminal organizations. He also argues that the statements are protected opinion or hyperbole. Finally, Dickson argues that there is no evidence of actual malice, since he believed (and still believes) that the statements were true when he made them. The Funds argue that Dickson’s statements cannot be considered opinion or hyperbole. The proper standard is what a reasonable person would believe the speaker intended. Here, the Funds argue that Dickson plainly intended his statements to be understood literally as a fact, thereby disqualifying them as protected opinions.

The Funds argue that Dickson’s statements were verifiably false, making them actionable. In addition, the Funds argue that they need only show that Dickson acted negligently with regard to the truth. Dickson’s legal theory is contradicted by an overwhelming body of law, making his statements based on it negligent.

The Supreme Court granted the petitions for review.

 

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