Forsgren Fisher successfully defends media organization’s First Amendment rights at Eighth Circuit
On August 6, 2022, the Eighth Circuit ended a lawsuit against non-profit media organization Oromia Media Network (“OMN”), affirming the dismissal of claims brought against the organization based on its reporting. The decision is a significant vindication of OMN’s First Amendment rights.
Oromia Media Network is a non-profit news organization founded in 2013 to produce educational, original, and citizen-driven reporting about the Oromo people and Ethiopian state. Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia but have long suffered persecution and oppression under various Ethiopian governments, causing many Oromos to flee the country. Ethiopia has a history of censoring independent news, the impact of which is felt most profoundly by Oromos. OMN was formed to fill this reporting gap by providing reporting by and for Oromos.
In June 2020, Oromia Media Network reported on the assassination of Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa and the significant unrest in Ethiopia that followed Hundessa’s assassination. After the assassination, the Ethiopian government immediately cracked down on perceived opposition, raiding an OMN affiliate’s offices in Ethiopia and detaining OMN journalists. A month later, the fight to silence OMN entered the United States, when an Ethiopian businessman sued OMN in United States District Court, alleging that OMN’s reporting was responsible for the unrest in Ethiopia. The plaintiff sought an injunction that would completely shut down OMN.
Forsgren Fisher partners Caitlinrose Fisher and Virginia McCalmont led a team that represented OMN in the district court, there joined by Greene Espel attorney Aaron Knoll, and on appeal. The district court agreed with OMN that the lawsuit should be dismissed and the plaintiff’s requested injunction denied. The court noted, among other things, that the plaintiff’s “conclusory characterization of OMN’s speech does not suffice to overcome its First Amendment protection.” Samuel v. Oromia Media Network et al., 569 F. Supp. 3d 904, 911 (D. Minn. 2021). The plaintiff appealed and, earlier this month, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, adopting the district court’s reasoning and bringing the lawsuit to a close.
The win is significant for OMN and other media organizations. “The District Court recognized that there is a high bar to overcoming First Amendment preemption,” Fisher explained, “including at the pleading stage.” “The ruling is important for any news organization that reports on civil unrest,” she added. OMN executive director Mohamed Abdosh is grateful that OMN can now refocus its resources on “creating media content that inform[s] and educate[s] the politically and economically marginalized population of Ethiopia on a wide range of issues.”