• Justice, Albeit Late, at Oberlin College and Gibson’s Bakery

    June 19, 2022 // 2 Comments »

    An African-American college student was arrested for shoplifting and a culture war erupted at Oberlin College, Ohio. He’s black now, the term African-American itself becoming offensive to some in the interim, and the war is mostly over. Ultra-liberal Oberlin lost after six years of legal wrangling. Oh, and the college owes $33 million in defamation damages to the surviving white people (two of the plaintiffs died of old age while the trial dragged on) who own a bakery it defamed over racial issues.

    It was 2016 and Donald Trump had just been elected president, defeating candidate Clinton. Everyone was certain Trump’s victory was the End of Democracy and was anxious to claim their victimhood in the New Order.

    Enter Oberlin College, arguably the most socially liberal school in America. Students protested the inauthenticity of food at the school’s Afrikan (sic) Heritage House and complained the cafeteria sushi and bánh mì were prepared with the wrong ingredients, making a mockery of cultures. There was scrutiny of the curriculum, and a student wanted trigger warnings on Antigone. African-American students wrote a letter to the school’s president with 50 non-negotiable demands for change in Oberlin’s admissions and personnel policies. And all that was seen — in 2016 — as a good thing. Such were the times.

    Then on November 9, 2016 (just the day after Donald Trump was elected), three black students from Oberlin College were arrested for attempting to steal wine from nearby Gibson’s Bakery. The shop was as much a part of the traditional Oberlin scene as the statues and college green. The white owner confronted one student, who ran from the store. Outside, the owner detained him, and while waiting for the police was attacked by two other black students. The students eventually entered guilty pleas, and were convicted. They read statements recanting allegations of racism against Gibson’s. Nothing connected the theft with Trump or racism except… racism.

    Upon hearing of the arrest Oberlin’s Student Senate immediately declared the incident a case of racial profiling, and without investigating passed a resolution calling for a boycott of the bakery. The college’s administration sent an email to students implying Gibson’s discriminated on the basis of race. Then-Oberlin Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo (she’s now vice president for student affairs at Oglethorpe University) handed out flyers supporting the boycott. As protests kicked into higher gear, Oberlin College provided a break room stocked with coffee and pizza in a nearby school building. Dean Raimondo also agreed to reimburse a student for money spent on gloves given to protesters to combat the cold weather. Raimondo had the college’s food distributer cut off food from the bakery. Gibson’s business suffered.

    The problem was the bakery did not racially profile anyone. The students had been shoplifting. The college acted against the bakery (“tortious interference with the business relationship” said the court) based on nothing but its underlying anger at Trump’s election. After some weak efforts to claim protection under the First Amendment (the legality of the protests was not in question), demand a mistrial, and blame everything on the students alone, the College dragged the case out for so long two of the Gibson’s owners died while waiting for the verdict.

    The case eventually ended up at the Ohio Court of Appeals, who knew a textbook defamation case when it saw one, and quickly fined Oberlin College $33 million in damages. Oberlin can but has not yet appealed the decision further. It was left to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to tweet the ruling represented “The cost of woke.” He was mocked on Twitter, of course.

    As knee-jerk reactions driven by an anti-Trump political agenda were a mark of the Trump Administration years themselves, so will defamation lawsuits, like the one with Oberlin, be a symbol of the post-Trump era. Defamation is a statement that injures a third party’s reputation, either as libel (written statements) or slander (spoken statements). Proving defamation requires showing four things: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact (Gibson Bakery is racist); 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person (the flyers and protests); 3) fault (e.g., intent) amounting to at least negligence (Oberlin ignored the shoplifters’ guilty pleas and other facts regarding the underlying crime); and 4) damages (Gibson lost business.)

    The Gibson case aside, the most likely source of defamation today is the media, given their reach via “publication.” So why aren’t there more defamation suits? First, the courts in the U.S. traditionally set the bar high to preserve the 1A’s duty to constitutionally-protected opinion. Historically the courts have also granted leeway to anyone, journalist or not, who appears to defame public figures. The idea is that if you put yourself out there, you’re expected to take a few slings and arrows. This is what allows tabloids like the National Enquirer to get away with making up stories about celebrities as their mission statement. But defamation as a business practice was once upon a time what bottom feeders did, not regular practice for the media of record and college deans.

    Things may be changing given the free-for-all media environment which relies on defamation to generate clicks. In addition to the big money Oberlin case, two years ago Covington Kid Nick Sandmann successfully sued CNN for defamation to the alleged tune of $25 million. The media falsely accused Sandmann of racism on the National Mall when he and some fellow high school students were confronted by actual racists. Sandmann’s suit charged CNN journalists “maintained a well-known and easily documented biased agenda against President Donald Trump and established a history of impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the president.” They asserted CNN and the others would have “known the statements to be untrue had they undertaken any reasonable efforts to verify their accuracy before publication.” In other words, they should have committed journalism, the finding of facts, in lieu of packaging what was actually nothing at all into a steamy piece that fit an existing agenda.

    In another example, John Paul Mac Isaac came to own Biden’s laptop after the president’s son abandoned it in his repair shop, the Mac Shop, in April 2019. The repair shop owner recently filed a defamation suit against the Daily Beast, CNN, and Politico seeking at least one million dollars in compensatory and an unspecified amount in punitive damages. Those media outlets claimed that Isaac was a liar who stole Biden’s laptop.

    The mind set of 2016 seems so long ago. People like AOC and her Squad, Michael Avenatti, and Andrew Cuomo were thought of as likely presidential candidates. Yet justice grinds on. Just check with the people who have to pay for it at Oberlin College.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Sarah Palin v. New York Times v. and the First Amendment

    February 19, 2022 // 7 Comments »

    What is Sarah Palin up to suing the New York Times for libel? Is she really trying to change the First Amendment and does she know what she is doing?

    Palin v. The New York Times Company is now before a district court in New York, and no matter the verdict is also certainly headed for the Supreme Court. It seeks to overturn precedent from 1964 that gave America some of the world’s strictest libel laws, laws which depending on which way the wind is blowing (i.e., if the media is red or blue and if the offended politician is red or blue) either allow for fake news and misinformation, or protect the 1A rights of a free press. So oh yes, the Palin case is political.

    The story began on June 14, 2017, when a left-wing activist shot at Republican politicians playing baseball on a field in Virginia (wounding, among others, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise). The NYT wrote “Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old-girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”

    The Times quickly issued multiple “corrections,” pointing out it had “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established. The editorial also incorrectly described a map distributed by [Palin’s] political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.”

    Palin filed a libel suit, quickly dismissed, stating the Times defamed her in claiming her PAC’s advertising somehow incited people to violence, and the Times darn well knew it was not true. After five years of wrangling, Palin got the case reinstated and it is now ongoing in New York.

    Under current law, four standards have to be met to succeed. Palin has to show 1) what the Times wrote was false. Not in contention, they knew it and issued corrections; 2) the article specifically referred to Palin; yep.  3) That what the Times wrote was defamatory, which caused Palin harm and 4) the Times knew what it published was false or that in publishing them it showed a reckless disregard for the truth. Number 4 refers to the standard of “actual malice.”

     

    The standard for libel cases between the media and public figures goes back to 1964’s Sullivan v. The New York Times Company, when the Court held the First Amendment protects media even when they publish false statements, as long as they did not act with “actual malice.” What happened was civil rights leaders had run a full-page fund raising ad in the Times, describing in detail what they called “an unprecedented wave of terror” of police actions against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. Not all the bad things they accused the cops of doing were true, and made the police look worse then they were. So L.B. Sullivan, in charge of the police response in Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel, claiming they printed something they knew was false and harm his reputation. In an Alabama court, Sullivan won and the New York Times was ordered to pay $500,000 in damages.

    The Times appealed to the Supreme Court and won. In greater context, Sullivan freed northern journalists to aggressively cover racial issues in the south, shielded from the threat of libel suits. It represented a significant broadening of the 1A.

    The Times argued broadly if a newspaper had to check the accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited, and that the 1A required the margin of error to fall on the side of the media in the cases of public officials (things work differently if both parties are private citizens.) The Court responded by creating a new standard for libel of a public figure, “actual malice” defined in short as having the knowledge that something was false or published with “reckless disregard” for truth. Justice William Brennan asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, factual errors that might damage officials’ reputations.

    The standards laid out in Sullivan are why the New York Times has not lost a libel case in America ever since.

    In the Palin case, to avoid disturbing the precedent, the Times is arguing their article did no harm to Sarah Palin. She continues to bop around the national political arena doing whatever it is she does. Palin’s side is leaning on the precedent directly, arguing the Times had no evidence whatsoever that her PAC had incited anyone, never mind the instant shooting case, and that the Times employee who wrote the original article thus exhibited “reckless disregard” for the truth and claimed “the reason he didn’t check these facts is simple. He didn’t care.” The case is in early days, but everyone already can map out what the arguments are going to have to be, based on the criteria in Sullivan.

     

    A lot of journalistic slush has flowed downhill since Sullivan in 1964, and attitudes toward trusting the media have changed. The media of 1964 set themselves the goal of objectivity, or at least the appearance thereof. In 2022 places like the NYT wear their partisanship as a badge of honor, and they overtly mock and hate people like Sarah “Caribou Barbie” Palin. They spend years wallowing in stories of far-reaching importance with reckless disregard for the truth, whether that be fake WMDs in Iraq to kick off a war, or Russiagate to try to bring down a president. The glory days of the Pentagon Papers, or the meticulous reporting on Watergate, are long, long gone.

    The Supreme Court which wrote Sullivan is also long gone. Completely separate from Palin’s lawsuit, last year Justice Neil Gorsuch added his voice to an earlier statement by Justice Clarence Thomas and questioned the standards set in Sullivan. Thomas, in a libel case dissent, specifically scolded the media over conspiracy theories and disinformation. He cited news reports on “the shooting at a pizza shop rumored to be the home of a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving ” and a NYT article involving “online posts falsely labeling someone a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile.” Thomas wrote that “instead of continuing to insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits, we should give them only the protection the First Amendment requires.”

    Siding with Thomas, Justice Gorsuch reminded in his own recent dissent in 1964 media was dominated by a handful of large operations who routinely “employed legions of investigative reporters, editors, and fact checkers… Network news has since lost most of its viewers. With their fall has come the rise of 24-hour cable news and online media platforms that monetize anything that garners clicks.” Gorsuch is clear this requires a reassessment of Sullivan, and for the first time in a long time has a conservative majority court seated around him perhaps ready to do so. This all in the face of likely presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose criticism of libel laws, focused on Bob Woodward’s books about his presidency, is well-known.

    Sarah Palin’s case against the New York Times comes at this junction in history. It leaves many with a bad taste in their mouths, particularly those who generally support broader First Amendment rights. A ruling which lessens the standards in Sullivan and ultimately leaves Palin the winner (libel laws are technically state-level torts, but the Supreme Court defines the boundaries in line with the Constitution) would have a chilling affect on the media. Maybe not super-media like the Times which has money for lawyers and relishes a good 1A fight, but smaller outlets who could not afford to defend themselves. Everyone remembers the demise of Gawker.

    At the same time, if the Court rules against the Times and allows a new standard which encourages more public figures to sue, it will only be the media’s own fault. Given the freedom under Sullivan to have close calls always fall their way, too many in the MSM purposefully exploited that treasure, using the 1A as a dummy front for sensationalizing garbage and outright partisan propaganda. It is unlikely in a post-Sullivan world Russiagate would have become a three year media event. In that instance, as the truth was exposed and falsehoods revealed about even the minor players, their libel suits would have stopped the whole thing cold. As Justice Gorsuch wrote, the Sullivan standard Palin is contesting has offered an “ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods” by a growing number of media that can disseminate sensational information with little regard for the truth. Maybe its time to change that.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump