Let’s Pile On.

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

This is an oldie but a goodie. In light of a recent elected official’s donnybrook with the local paper, I thought we could all brush up on our libel/slander/defamation rules.
Ok, we’re back on solid ground here. A few weeks ago, I made mention of an interesting column I was going to share next week. Well, those of us in the Penn State University universe were kind of shaken up by the events of last week, and thus, I wrote a column based on why I thought that Penn State’s iconic coach needed to be fired. Sad stuff, that. Even sadder still are all of the ancillary issues that continue to plague my alma mater. More on that at a later date.
But this week, there’s a topic that I found more amusing and less emotionally draining. It appears that a congressman from Ohio is suing an organization that he feels lost him his most recent bid for re-election. The most surprising aspect about this case is that the judge that has been responsible for nipping what would appear to be a frivolous lawsuit in the bud by dismissing the thing out of hand. But he didn’t, and now the case will be going to trial.
This is an interesting g little matter (to us, of course; we didn’t lose our jobs as a result of whatever the congressman said went on). The congressman always had a very pro-life agenda, and, during the most recent election, one organization, The Susan B. Anthony List, came out and stated that the congressman was in favor of abortion. Now, either the group completely lost its marbles and there was an issue of mistaken identity, or the group really did defame the congressman. Allegedly, then, as a result of The Susan B. Anthony List’s misstatement, the congressman lost his reelection bid.
Under the law of defamation (which includes slander and libel), you have to have a false statement, said or printed with reckless disregard for the truth that causes the subject of the written word or spoken statement damages. In this, the key is damages. If you can’t show that you suffered damages, you have no case.
In the United States, public figures have little to no protection from slander or libel. Because these folks inject themselves onto the public stage, their expectation of privacy is pretty much nill. Thus, there is very little way a public plaintiff in a defamation or slander case can recover in the United States. In Great Britain and Europe, it’s a different story, and a column for another day.
The biggest issue I have with this case going forward, aside from the public figure aspect of it, is that how does the congressman know that the List’s assertions actually caused him to lose the election? An election is a huge machine with many moving parts. If a few break down, that could be fatal to the campaign. In this instance, the Congressman has to prove that, but for the statements of the List, he would have prevailed in his political race. That would take a lot of doing. The best I could figure is that he would have to call up a bunch of people that voted for his opponent, and have them state, on the record, that, if they hadn’t been privy to the information disseminated, they would have voted for him.
This trial could be chilling upon the political discourse of this country as we know it; heck, even the ACLU came out against this lawsuit. One of the bedrocks of our political system is that anyone can say anything about anybody, and, if that person is a public figure, or, has entered into the public light as a public figure, said public figure has to just shut up and take it. Sure, they can say that the rumors or facts are false, and they have to hope that their constituents understand the difference between the person they are, and the things that are being said about them do not add up. History is filled with these types of character assassinations that are exposed as wrong, eventually, usually after the election. President Grover Cleveland was rumored to have an illegitimate child; Michael Dukakis was accused of being soft on crime; and Bill Clinton was accused of having many, many affairs (ok, well maybe that one was true). But, even so, politicians have to understand that there are a great many people out there that do not have a command of the facts and that it is up to said politician to educate them on what is right. If they can’t break through that noise, well then, looks like the people have had enough of them being in office.
Can you imagine what would happen if every politician sued as a result of a loss? Not only would that provide a strange, new precedent, but no one would run for office again and, more importantly, no one would ever speak out against a candidate they don’t agree with. That’s chilling indeed.

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