February 19, 2019
By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday for a second time declined to take up a case related to sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Cosby, refusing to consider reviving a defamation lawsuit against the comedian filed by a woman who said he falsely called her a liar after she accused him of raping her in 1974.
The justices turned away an appeal by Kathrine McKee, an actress and former Las Vegas showgirl, of a lower court ruling in Massachusetts that threw out her lawsuit. Separately, Cosby was sentenced last September to three to 10 years in prison in Pennsylvania for sexually assaulting another woman in 2004.
In doing so, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate opinion calling for the court to reconsider a major 1964 Supreme Court precedent that made it harder for public figures to bring defamation claims. Thomas called the 1964 ruling in the case called New York Times v. Sullivan and other related precedents “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.”
Thomas’ views appear aligned with President Donald Trump. In January 2018 Trump called current defamation laws “a sham and a disgrace” following the publication of a book about the White House by Michael Wolff called “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which among other things questioned the president’s mental health.
The Supreme Court last October snubbed an appeal by Cosby in another defamation case, allowing a lawsuit brought by former model Janice Dickinson to go forward against the entertainer best known for his starring role in the 1980s hit television series “The Cosby Show.”
McKee went public with her rape accusation against Cosby in a 2014 interview with the New York Daily News. She is one of more than 50 women who in recent years have accused Cosby of sexual assault dating back to the 1960s by using drugs to incapacitate them.
An attorney for Cosby then sent a letter to the newspaper, suggesting McKee was a liar and calling her an unreliable source. In the letter, Cosby’s lawyer said McKee had admitted lying to get hired as a showgirl.
McKee sued Cosby for defamation in 2015 in federal court in Boston, saying the letter made false statements and harmed her reputation.
A trial judge in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2017 dismissed her claims, saying the lawsuit was barred by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.
The appeals court said that by deliberately wading into the controversy, McKee had become a public figure, requiring her to prove Cosby acted with malice – meaning he knew his statements were false – to win a defamation claim.
McKee told the justices that she “should not be victimized twice over” by making it harder for her to prove defamation merely because she went public as an alleged victim.
Cosby, 81, was found guilty in April 2018 of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for the drugging and sexual assault of Andrea Constand, a former Temple University administrator, at his Philadelphia home in 2004. He was sentenced in that case on Sept. 25.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung. Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)