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Court Rejects CNN Defense That QAnon Retweets Are Endorsements

Aug. 12, 2022, 7:42 PM

Relatives of former Trump adviser Michael Flynn can proceed with their false light claim against CNN based on a news story it ran that allegedly suggested they were QAnon followers, a federal trial court in New York said Friday.

The story Cable News Network Inc. ran showed John and Leslie Flynn at a meeting while a chyron appeared on the screen stating “CNN Goes Inside a Gathering of QAnon Followers.” The Flynns said the report was false because they aren’t QAnon followers. They said that they don’t adhere to the group’s “dangerous, extremist, racist, anti-Semitic and violent beliefs.”

CNN asked the court to reconsider an earlier order denying its motion to dismiss. It claimed that by retweeting QAnon tweets and following its Twitter page, the Flynns showed that they are QAnon followers.

In the context of CNN’s report, “the term QAnon follower would be reasonably understood by a viewer to mean an adherent to the QAnon movement, in the sense that a member of a faith follows its belief system,” the court said. But “none of the Flynns’ tweets state that they are believers in the QAnon movement,” the opinion by Judge Gregory H. Woods of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York said.

By following a Twitter feed, a person doesn’t become a group’s follower “in the sense that you are now an adherent in the entire belief system of the tweeter,” the court said. It added that it couldn’t assume John believes in every viewpoint held by QAnon simply because he tweeted that he shares the group’s alleged belief in the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and equal justice under the law.

A retweeter doesn’t adopt every word in the original tweet as their own, the court said. Retweets aren’t “necessarily an endorsement of the original tweet, much less an endorsement of the unexpressed belief system of the original tweeter,” it said.

The Flynns’ tweets are not sufficient to establish that it was substantially true to call them QAnon followers, the court said. CNN therefore didn’t show that the court erred in allowing the Flynns’ false light claim to proceed, it said.

Handel & Carlini LLP represented the Flynns. Davis Wright Tremaine LLP represented CNN.

The case is Flynn v. Cable News Network Inc., S.D.N.Y., No. 1:21-cv-2587-GHW, 8/12/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bernie Pazanowski in Washington at bpazanowski@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com