UPDATE: Ayyadurai will appeal, lawyer says.
A federal judge in Boston today dismissed V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai's libel lawsuit against a California tech Web site that published more than a dozen articles disputing his claims to have invented e-mail as a 14-year-old in 1978.
At best, US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor ruled today, Ayyadurai invented an e-mail system; whether he is the father of all e-mail, however, is a question that is open to legitimate public debate.
And because Ayyadurai, who is running for the Republican nomination for US Senate in next year's election, has thrust himself so vigorously into the discussion of the issue - through Web sites and articles and claims to being "a world-renowned scientist, inventor, lecturer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur" - he is a public figure, which means that even if Techdirt were wrong, it would be protected under a Supreme Court ruling that public figures must prove not only that something written about them was wrong, but that it was published with "actual malice" towards them, Saylor wrote.
And, the judge continued, the question of who invented e-mail is a matter of "public concern," which further burdened Ayyadurai with first even proving that what Techdirt wrote was false, rather than requiring Techdirt to show that what it wrote was true.
That, he concluded, Ayyadurai failed to do. In fact, the ultimate answer to who really invented e-mail might be unreachable, because it depends in part on how one defines e-mail - which some say actually dates to 1965. And if that is unknowable, then it becomes impossible to judge Techdirt's allegations that Ayyadurai's claims are false, because those, too, depend on the issue of just what e-mail is.
Here, even a reader who agrees with defendants' view that plaintiff should not be credited as the sole inventor of e-mail may not agree that his claim is "fake" or "bogus." One person may consider a claim to be "fake" if any element of it is not true or if it involves a slight twisting of the facts, while another person may only consider a claim to be "fake" only if no element of it is true. Thus, whether statements such as "Dr. Ayyadurai is perpetuating a ‘fake story' with respect to his claims of invention of email," [from his complaint], are provably true or false depends not only on how one defines "e-mail," but also on how one defines "fake." Because both terms, in this context, are imprecise, the statements are not actionable.
In short, the [Techdirt] articles disclose the non-defamatory facts on which they rely; make clear that the conclusions drawn from those facts are simply an interpretation of them; and do not rely on other, undisclosed and potentially defamatory facts that are not available to others. ... Furthermore, by providing hyperlinks to the relevant information, the articles enable readers to review the underlying information for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
Saylor also rejected a claim by Ayyadurai, who has publicly said he would be running as "the real Indian" against Elizabeth Warren, that Techdirt libeled him by questioning whether people who disagree with his claim are racist.
Saylor noted that one Techdirt article on the issue:
[I]ncluded a lengthy excerpt from plaintiff’s Twitter feed, including tweets challenging journalists who, following his death, credited Ray Tomlinson (a former Raytheon employee) with creating e-mail and a tweet stating that "[w]hite journalists since 2012 have joined in the lynching and whitewashing of facts on email."
The article also included an exposition on the topic from Ayyadurai's own Web site.
Finally, the article also included links to information about work performed by Tomlinson in the area of electronic messaging. By providing all of that information, [the Techdirt writer] made clear that he is drawing his own, subjective conclusion, and he enabled his readers to draw their own conclusions from the information provided. Furthermore, no reasonable reader would conclude that his statements about plaintiff’s claims of racism were based on any non-disclosed, objective information. Accordingly, the statements are protected.
Saylor concludes that Ayyadurai failed to show actual malice on Techdirt's part - and pointedly rejected his argument that the fact that the failed Gawker Web site - bankrupted by an unrelated libel suit - settled with him is proof he was right:
Here, the complaint fails to lay out such facts. It alleges that defendants made the allegedly defamatory statements “with the knowledge that they were false,” but fails to provide any specific factual allegations to support that conclusion. (See Compl. ¶ 48). It alleges only that defendants made the allegedly defamatory statements despite knowing that another website, Gawker.com, had settled a defamation claim brought by plaintiff concerning similar statements. (Compl. ¶ 51). However, even assuming that the statements at issue in the Gawker litigation were substantially similar to the statements at issue here (although the complaint does not allege as much), a settlement is not a direct reflection of the merits of a claim.