In a decision issued last week, Judge Abrams granted investment fund Franklin Templeton’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it by Amy Cooper, a former employee. In May 2020, video of an altercation between Ms. Cooper and a black birdwatcher in Central Park went viral. Her employer terminated her the following day, and issued this statement: “Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately. We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton.”
Ms. Cooper sued, alleging race and gender discrimination and defamation. Judge Abrams held that Ms. Cooper’s complaint did not give rise to even a “minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.” As to the defamation claim, Judge Abrams held that Franklin Templeton’s statement was “a protected statement of opinion, rather than a defamatory statement of fact capable of being proven true or false.”
Plaintiff acknowledges that the video of her encounter with Mr. Cooper became “international news as a racial flashpoint.” The incident received heightened media and public scrutiny, in particular, because it took place “in the midst of an ongoing national reckoning about systemic racism.” In fact, the Central Park incident coincided exactly with the date of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, an event which similarly sparked intense discourse nationwide on issues of racial justice and policing. The contents of the viral video, as well as the dialogue surrounding it both in the media and on social media, were already matters of public knowledge when Defendants’ May 26 tweet was posted. Because Defendants’ statement did not imply the existence of undisclosed facts—rather, a reasonable reader would have understood it to be based on widely disseminated facts in the public domain—it is protected as pure opinion.