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Could Cristiano Ronaldo Win a Libel Suit Against Guillem Balague?

Probably not. But hey, it's the international break and what else are we going to talk about?

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

In his newest book, Barcelona-based sportswriter Guillem Balague revealed that Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo routinely refers to Lionel Messi as "motherf*****." At first these allegations barely reach the level of "news reported in the Barcelona fan-papers"--I mean, "Pope Catholic" seems to be an equally interesting headline.

But just as the world seemed ready to laugh this non-news off, Cristiano Ronaldo took to Facebook to angrily denounce Balague:

So, taking Cristiano at his word (that he plans to bring a suit against Balague, presumably for libel), and taking some creative liberty with the situation (i.e. assuming he plans to sue in the United States, which seems unlikely), I'm going to walk through what, exactly, Cristiano would have to do to win. However, because I received so much backlash last time I wrote about a legal issue on Managing Madrid, I suppose I need to warn you: not only will this piece be facetious and silly, it will contain absolutely no commentary about football. Oh the humanity!

First, a preliminary qualification: libel is a tort action, which means it would be brought under state tort law. Most states have different requirements for proving a libel claim--and I won't get into any of those here.

Second, and more importantly for this piece, the United States has one of the most robust free speech protection regimes in the entire world--this makes it particularly hard to win a libel suit against a journalist. The First Amendment to the Constitution has been interpreted very broadly (thankfully for those of us who write for blogs)--the Supreme Court has refused to uphold libel claims even when a party published a false statement of fact, because, as Justice Brandeis said in Whitney v. California:
"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
That's why the Supreme Court overturned a ban on neo-Nazi marches in the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, for example; it's also why the Court allowed Hustler magazine to write a (completely false) erotic story about Jerry Falwell.


OK. So it's really hard to win a libel claim in the United States, especially if you're a "public figure" (like Cristiano) and the offending publisher is a journalist. But can it be done? Conceivably. And here's how.

In New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 245 (1964) the Supreme Court outlined what a "public figure" plaintiff would have to do to win a libel action against a news organization. In Sullivan, the plaintiff (a Southern sheriff) argued that the defendant (the New York Times) published false statements of fact regarding certain actions the Sheriff had taken against civil rights leaders and advocates in the early 1960's.

And he was right--for example, the offending advertisement said that protesters were singing "My Country Tis of Thee" while the Sheriff helped to round up their leaders and expel them. They were singing the national anthem. 376 U.S. at 278-9.

So he established that there had been certain false statements. But was that enough to win his claim? No. The Supreme Court reversed the Alabama court decision granting the Sheriff monetary compensation, holding that,
"[t]he constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice" -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U.S. at 279-280.
Because Cristiano is a "public figure," that is he "achieved...pervasive fame or notoriety" (Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448 (1976)), and because Balague's book directly pertains to Cristiano's conduct in his job, he has to prove that Balague made his statement "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."


Ultimately, then, this situation leaves us with two questions: first, do you really think it's that unlikely that Balague made this up just to harm Cristiano's reputation? And second, even if Balague did make it up, is there any way at all to prove that?

So would Cristiano win? Almost certainly not. Would it be a seriously funny case to litigate? Oh yes. And I'm not even a litigator.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, and should not be construed as such. Any legal claims are the opinions of the author.

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