Amazon's Prime Reliance on the First Amendment's Free Expression Protections in Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc., v. Amazon.com, Inc.

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
Publication year2022
CitationVol. 73 No. 2

Amazon's Prime Reliance on the First Amendment's Free Expression Protections in Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc., v. Amazon.com, Inc.

Avery Hart Hayes

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Amazon's Prime Reliance on the First Amendment's Free Expression Protections in Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc., v. Amazon.com, Inc.


Avery Hart Hayes*


I. Introduction

Is freedom of expression sometimes more important than one's reputation and religious inclusion? Spoiler alert—the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals says yes.

The First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."1 Defamation law has existed for centuries; however, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that the Supreme Court of the United States considered defamation law in conjunction with the First Amendment. Since then, the protections of the First Amendment are especially heightened when it comes to published criticism of public officials and public figures. The rationale for this heightened standard is that statements about public officials and public figures are matters of public concern and, as such, should be widely available to the public.

As it relates to discrimination, the First Amendment protects messages conveyed by private individuals or entities. Even when the messages exclude groups on a discriminatory basis, such exclusionary messages are protected by the First Amendment and are, therefore,

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permitted. In other words, sometimes excluding a certain group is part of conveying a message. In that case, excluding the group is not discrimination, rather it is protected free expression.

In Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc., v. Amazon.com, Inc.,2 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized the importance of free expression when a religious organization was denied the opportunity to participate in Amazon.com, Inc.'s (Amazon) charitable giving program, AmazonSmile.3 Through the AmazonSmile program, Amazon customers may select Amazon-approved charities of their choice, and a portion of the customers' Amazon purchases will be donated to the selected charities. The court clarified how the First Amendment works in conjunction with defamation and discrimination claims, explaining that the First Amendment not only protects spoken words but also expressive conduct.4 Adhering to the authority of the First Amendment, the court chose not to force Amazon to donate to an organization that it did not support.5

II. Factual Background

Defendant AmazonSmile is a nonprofit foundation created by Amazon that donates 0.5% of the revenue from purchases on AmazonSmile's website to eligible charity organizations.6 Customers shopping on AmazonSmile may select eligible charities to which they would like Amazon to donate a percentage of customers' purchase price.7 Eligible charities are selected by Amazon using the following criteria: (1) the organizations "must be registered and in good standing with the IRS as a 501(c)(3)" and meet other regulatory criteria; (2) the organizations "must . . . adhere to the AmazonSmile Participation Agreement;" and (3) the "organizations that engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities are not eligible to participate."8 In deciding which organizations to designate as "hate groups," AmazonSmile relies on the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) Hate Map and discloses on its website that it does so. SPLC's Hate Map defines hate groups as those with "'beliefs or practices that attack or

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malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics' whose 'activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing.'"9

Plaintiff Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. (Coral Ridge) is a Florida-based evangelical Christian nonprofit media company that is directed by a Florida megachurch and dedicated to sharing the late D. James Kennedy's view of the Christian Gospel.10 This view includes a literal adherence to biblical passages including statements about homosexuality.11 Coral Ridge relies on biblical passages in openly opposing what it calls "the homosexual agenda."12 The SPLC declared Coral Ridge a hate group on its Hate Map because of Coral Ridge's religious beliefs and teaching regarding homosexuality.13 In January 2017, Coral Ridge applied for membership in the AmazonSmile program, and AmazonSmile deemed Coral Ridge ineligible for the program based on the SPLC's designation of Coral Ridge as a hate group on its Hate Map.14

Coral Ridge filed suit in the Middle District of Alabama claiming defamation under Alabama law against the SPLC and discrimination under Title II of the Civil Rights Act against Amazon.15 The defamation claim was against SPLC for listing Coral Ridge on its Hate Map, and the discrimination claim was against Amazon for allegedly discriminating against Coral Ridge on the basis of religion. Both the SPLC and Amazon moved to dismiss the suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The trial court dismissed both claims. In its order dismissing the claims, the trial court pointed to the First Amendment in dismissing both the defamation claim and the discrimination claim. However, the court's primary reason for dismissing the discrimination claim was that the AmazonSmile program was not covered by Title II of the Civil Rights Act because Amazon is a private entity. Coral Ridge appealed and the case reached the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.16

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The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the complaint.17

III. Legal Background

A. Defamation as it Relates to the First Amendment

To establish a defamation claim under Alabama law, a plaintiff must show: "(1) that the defendant was at least negligent (2) in publishing (3) a false and defamatory statement to another (4) concerning the plaintiff, (5) which is either actionable without having to prove special harm . . . or actionable upon allegations and proof of special harm."18 However, when the state law is applied to public figures and public officials, the First Amendment imposes additional requirements.19 These additional requirements include: (1) "the allegedly defamatory statement must be 'sufficiently factual to be susceptible of being proved true or false,' [(2)] the statement must actually be false, [and (3)] a public-figure plaintiff must prove that the defendant made the alleged defamatory statement with 'actual malice.'"20

In the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,21 the Supreme court of the united States determined for the first time how the First Amendment's free expression protections are to be applied in cases where public figures sue their critics for defamation.22 There, the court established the "actual malice" requirement.23 This case was decided during the civil Rights Movement, and although defamation had been a cause of action for many years, the Supreme court had never applied the First Amendment's freedom of expression to allegedly defamatory speech. It was not until the New York Times reported on the civil rights protests and police interaction with protesters that the court carved out First Amendment protections for publishing these stories. In New York Times, the court discussed its previous decisions where it stated that the constitution does not protect libelous publications, but then made a

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distinction for cases that involve the critique of public officials.24 The Court highly regarded the First Amendment's protection of open discussion of public issues, which "sometimes [includes] unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."25 Further, even untrue statements about public officials are protected by the First Amendment when the statements are not made knowingly or with reckless disregard of the truth.26 The Court reasoned that erroneous statements are inevitable in open debate.27 The Court set the precedent that neither factual error nor defamatory speech (nor the combination of both) automatically overrides the First Amendment's free speech protections for publications regarding public officials.28

Perhaps most notably, the New York Times Court held that public officials may only recover damages under a defamation claim when there is a showing of actual malice on the part of the defendant.29 The Court defined actual malice as "know[ing] that [the statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."30 The actual malice standard is a high threshold, making it difficult for public officials to recover damages in defamation suits.31

Three years after New York Times was decided, the Supreme Court of the United States in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts32 extended First Amendment protections of defamatory criticism about public officials in the same way the First Amendment protects defamatory criticism about public figures. In other words, instead of only applying to officials employed by the government, the actual malice standard was extended to everyone with public notoriety or fame.33

In 1968, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified what it takes to meet the "actual malice" requirement in St. Amant v. Thompson.34 Specifically, the Court addressed what constitutes "reckless disregard of whether [the statement] was false or not."35 In

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this case the accusatory statements the defendant made about the public official plaintiff during a televised speech did not meet the actual malice requirement, and the Court stated that in order to act with reckless disregard of the truth, one must have serious doubt about the truthfulness of the statement.36

The Supreme Court of the United States expounded upon the element of untruthfulness regarding allegedly defamatory statements about public officials and public figures in Milkovich,37 decided in 1990. The Court determined that when a...

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