• NYT v. Sullivan Unfortunately Lives to Fight Another Day

    October 27, 2023 // 8 Comments »

    Justice Clarence Thomas said it “comes at a heavy cost, allowing media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’” It is New York Times v. Sullivan, America’s defining defamation law and it unfortunately lives to fight another day. Or mess one up.

    Thomas, along with others on the Supreme Court, declined earlier this month to revisit the landmark First Amendment decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, rebuffing a request (the case involved a man falsely accused in the press of being a felon) to take another look at decades-old precedent that created a high bar for public figures to claim defamation in civil suits. Since 1964 the media relied on the case to fend off costly defamation lawsuits brought by public figures. The ruling established the requirement that public figures show “actual malice” by the press before they can succeed in a libel dispute.

    Defamation is untruths commonly referred to as libel if in print. Five standards have to be met when the defamation takes places between the media and a public figure: 1) the defamatory words have been published; 2) The person being defamed was identified by the statements; 3) The remarks had a negative impact on the person’s reputation; 4) The named Defendant wrote the defamatory remarks; 5) The published information is demonstrably false or was published with a reckless disregard for the truth. That means it was published without investigating whether it was accurate.

    New York Times v. Sullivan held the First Amendment protects media even when they publish false statements, as long as they did not act with actual malice. What happened in the case was civil rights leaders had run a full-page fund raising ad in the Times, describing “an unprecedented wave of terror” by the police 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 cops in Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel, claiming they printed something they knew was false to harm his reputation. After losing in a lower court, the Times appealed to the Supreme Court and won.

    The Times argued 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. In short, mistakes were going to be made even with good intentions by the media. The Court created 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 recent case the Court just refused to hear (Thomas still wants to review Sullivan but said the current case is not the right vehicle for that), Don Blankenship v. NBC Universal, local media labeled Blankenship a felon, causing him to lose a run for the West Virginia Senate, he maintains. The truth is that Blankenship committed a misdemeanor and was sentenced to one day less than if the case had involved a felony charge. In arguing for Blankenship to a lower court, his attorneys wrote “The actual malice standard poses a clear and present danger to our democracy. New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny grant the press a license to publish defamatory falsehoods that misinform voters, manipulate elections, intensify polarization, and incite unrest.”

    Attorneys for the media outlets successfully urged the justices not to take up the case, arguing the reporting mistakes were honest ones. “There is good reason why the actual malice standard of New York Times has been embraced for so long and so often,” the media organizations told the justices. “At its essence, the standard protects ‘erroneous statements honestly made.’ While it permits recovery for falsehoods uttered with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth, it provides the ‘breathing space’ required for ‘free debate.’ A free people engaged in self-government deserves no less.”

    Those are the standard Sullivan arguments. It’s just that Justice Thomas does not agree. The Sullivan ruling and ones elaborating on it, he wrote, “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” with “no relation to the text, history or structure of the Constitution… the actual-malice standard comes at a heavy cost.” His colleague Justice Neil Gorsuch, in an earlier statement, wrote “What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable.”

    It may indeed be time for a change. Sullivan was written for a different media world, one dominated by a handful of huge companies like the New York Times which could be held to high standards. They were assumed to be honorable in their work, and if a mistake was made it was most likely an accident. Reporting was just that, news, reported out to the people are accurately as possible. Not so in 2023. The media is a splintered mess, with teenage YouTube influencers reaching vast audiences, challenging the giants of yesterday to a share of the market. These micro-outlets have no fact checking staff, are typically run by people with no journalistic training and maybe not even a high school diploma, and are gloriously, joyfully not trying to be fair and accurate. They traffic instead in gossip and innuendo, smearing together fact and fiction because that attracts eyeballs to their work, their only standard.

    This sort of competition affected the mainstream media, which became more and more partisan and less concerned about the truth if a story brought in readers. One need only look at the embarrassing bits of what passed for journalism as major should-know-better outlets like the Times and the Washington Post reported falsehood after falsehood throughout Russiagate and indeed the entire Trump administration. Given the freedom to make mistakes in the name of the First Amendment, these organs instead took that as license to play at the line of reckless disregard for the truth. How else could a Pulitzer prize be awarded in part of placing Trump fixer Michael Cohen in Prague to meet with Russian spies, or claim a Trump Organization email server was instead a secret communications portal to the Kremlin via Alfa Bank? How could the standard in Sullivan meant to promote robust debate end up protecting a serious column in the Washington Post headlined “Here are 18 reasons Trump Could Be a Russian Asset” without the retort of a defamation suit available?

    Sullivan was meant to protect the underlying value of debate even in the face of product of carelessness and substandard journalistic methods. Its era has passed, wasted by the modern media on confections like YouTube and frauds like Russiagate. The Times of 1964 earned the right to make mistakes in service to a greater good; the Times of 2023 would embarrass its earlier self in how it has exploited such a gift.

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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, Post-Constitution America

    Negotiations Continue on Guns and Abortions

    August 1, 2022 // 1 Comment »

    We don’t really negotiate much in the U.S. and so we’re bad at it. Even when we are forced to “haggle,” we employ rituals, like the salesperson at a used car dealership “checking with his manager” on our offers, or the dance between real estate agents that goes along with buying a house. Car offers come back from the mysterious manager as impossible, and offers on a house are just refused, no chance to talk because two layers of agents stand in the way. That’s why we cannot find any common ground on abortion and gun control. We do not know how to be reasonable.

    The American style of negotiating is to demand everything and settle for nothing less. So we’re taught to make our first offer the final offer (it works a little different when the issue is simply money, then we ask for an outrageous amount and “bargain down” after the other side offers an equally outrageous small amount. Starting anywhere near your actual price is considered a sign of weakness.) We don’t like gray areas and we don’t like to feel we’ve lost out on something. So being asked to support something on its face reasonable like allowing two people in love living together in a home they co-own to marry means buying into a whole LGBTQIA2+ agenda that somehow includes forcing kids to listen to drag queens read stories aloud about sexually ambitious caterpillars and their same-sex tadpole pals. Seeking restrictions on abortion ends up cruelly forcing rape and incest victims to carry to term.

    We do the same thing in broader swathes, when reporters who misuse pronouns or support the Harry Potter author are not just sidelined or argued with, but canceled, deleted, defunded, disenfranchised, literally thrown down the memory hole to just take their opinion and go away, leaving only your opinion standing. The presumption is even on the most ideological of arguments there is a clear right and wrong only. We have evolved speech to match this mindset, things like “my way or the highway,” “all or nothing,” and “in or out.”

    Back in the day when I worked for the State Department every summer embassies abroad had to ask for funding for summer hires to help us catch up on clerical work. There was only so much money around and not everyone could get all they wanted. At first I did what was standard, ask for ten people knowing I only needed five, with all sorts of silly justifications I had to eventually walk back. One year I played it different. I wrote in detail what five people would do, what would not get done with only four, and why six would be a waste of personnel. That year and the ones that followed were the easiest ever; Washington and I jumped right to the meat of the problem and nobody was forced to belittle the other on the road to negotiating a compromise.

    That’s what did not happen recently in overturning Roe v. Wade. Though Roe was poor jurisprudence and Constitutionally hilarious, it was the product of negotiation. First trimester abortions were basically allowed, second term were generally allowed, and third was more or less up to the states.  Roe produced a workable solution to a very complex problem, uniquely American as it combined religious, moral, and Red and Blue thought into what was often falsely presented as a binary decision — abortion was legal or not. The compromises in Roe were far from perfect or widely accepted, simply the output of a beleaguered Court willing to talk about something the rest of America would not.

    The problem was Roe’s supporters and opponents almost from day one set about trying to take a compromise solution and make it an absolute. States latched on to their freedom to dictate third semester rules by gleefully promoting gory end term abortions where a viable baby was aborted. There can be good medical reasons to consider this, but the issue was not presented that way, it was “a woman’s right.” Same on the other side. Clever legal tricks were deployed so that, sure, you can get a first trimester abortion, only not where clinic regulations and hospital affiliations were manipulated to make it near impossible to meet the standards. As was intended. No one was going to sit back and allow compromise to stand.

    The Court itself is not immune; in combination with the gutting of Roe (another all or nothing type decision) Judge Clarence Thomas opened the door to ending Federal law allowing for same sex marriage. If you can’t have all the rights you should have none of them he seems to be saying to the Left. Specifically, Thomas was threatening Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that declared married couples had a right to contraception; Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 case invalidating sodomy laws and making same-sex sexual activity legal across the country; and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case establishing the right of gay couples to marry. How again are those directly related to the hyper-complex issue of abortion?

    More importantly, has anything changed in society that requires a new look, something gone amiss? No, the only thing that has changed is a different side now holds a majority on the Court and wants to run with it. They have no more interest in compromise than the demonstrators massing around Justices’ homes in hopes of harassing them into compliance with the mob, or AOC on TV screaming people are going to die.

    Same for gun control, the other recent Supreme Court decision. In New York State Rifle v. Bruen, the Supreme Court again swung widely. The existing law, basically saying the right to bear arms in the 2A did not automatically mean a right to openly carry arms in public, had been misused by anti-gun states. In Hawaii, for example, every single open carry permit had to be approved personally by the chief of police. Multiple chiefs over a period of recent years found no reason to approve even a single permit and in the past 22 years there have been four open carry permits issued in Hawaii; all or nothing, as if somehow not one applicant in recent memory was capable of safely openly carrying a weapon. So the response from the now-conservative Supreme Court was to do away with provisions governing carrying a weapon. The counter-response from those states who are anti-gun, such as Hawaii, is to promise to jerry-rig their laws with outrageous training requirements or exorbitant fees to somehow get around the Court’s perceived free-for-all, and to cite recent mass shootings (which had nothing to do with handguns or open carry laws) as fear-inducing excuses. Nobody sees any of the middle ground of reality.

    And that is why the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion and gun carry law resolve nothing. In the extreme progressives will simply wait it out until it is 1973 again, and the Court will have turned over to a more liberal group of jurists who will reinstate black to replace white or vice-versa. The real answer on abortion, a rough and robust debate in Congress followed by a set of compromises, or an equally rough and robust debate at the state level, will never come. Americans are not very good at negotiating and so usually pay more at the car dealer than they should. The same problems plagues us on much more serious issues regarding abortion and the Second Amendment and that ends up costing us a lot more.

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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, Post-Constitution America

    Remembering the Death of Kelly Thomas at the Hands of the Police

    July 7, 2015 // 10 Comments »

    kelly




    If a video of ISIS doing this to an American played on TV this afternoon, all of the country would be in an uproar. When it happened in America, there was barely a whisper.

    This week marks the fourth anniversary of the beating death of American Citizen Kelly Thomas at the hands of the Fullerton Police. All three cops seen in the video were found not guilty. The victim, Kelly, is shown in the hospital just before his death.

    I’m sorry if the image offended you, or if you are thinking of clicking away and unfollowing me on Twitter, but I am offended by what is happening in our country.



    Who the Cops Work For

    Kelly Thomas was a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia who lived on the streets of Fullerton, California. He was known to frequent an alleyway near a swanky restaurant. The owner didn’t like that, and allegedly phoned in a fake 911 report that Thomas was vandalizing cars to get the Fullerton Police on the scene to “take care” of the problem.

    The cops did their job. The really cleaned up the stain of a homeless guy getting in the way of someone making money.

    Kelly Thomas was beaten and killed by cops Jay Cicinelli, Manuel Ramos, and Joseph Wolfe on July 5, 2011. Thomas was comatose on arrival at the hospital, where he was taken after the three cops had had their fill of beating him. He never regained consciousness, and died on July 10, 2011.

    For nine minutes and 40 seconds, the officers pummeled Thomas to the ground, with Ramos delivering volleys of punches and beating Thomas with his baton and Cicinelli tasing the homeless man twice in the face.



    Choked on His Own Blood

    Medical records show that bones in Thomas’ face were broken and he choked on his own blood. The coroner concluded that compression of the thorax made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen. The cops who beat him into that condition did not render any first aid on the scene, which may have saved their victim’s life.

    Officer Manuel Ramos (the cop at the beginning of the video who asks “See my fists?”) was charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter; Corporal Jay Cicinelli and Officer Joseph Wolfe were each charged with one count of felony involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive force.

    All three pleaded not guilty.



    Justice, American Style

    A judge declined to dismiss the charges against the officers in January 2013, finding that “a reasonable person could infer that the use of force was excessive and unreasonable.” The case went to trial and Ramos and Cicinelli were found not guilty of all charges. Following the verdict for the two officers, the district attorney’s office announced it would not pursue the case against Officer Wolfe.

    The defense argued cops must protect themselves when they believe they are in danger, without fear of prosecution for handling the incident with force.

    If this wasn’t wrong, then nothing can ever be wrong.







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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, Post-Constitution America