New York Times v. Sullivan has not been the pure boon to democracy and the Constitution that its defenders claim.
Using Defamation Law to Restrain False Statements
Recently, I wrote a post about the possibility of using defamation law to restrain the Twitter mobs and others who harm and defame people. I am happy to see that defamation law is now being used in exactly this way.
Perhaps the most significant event involves the Southern Poverty Law Center’s false statements about Quilliam International and its founder, Maajid Nawaz. Nawaz, who coauthored a book with Sam Harris, is a Muslim who fights both Islamic extremism and anti-Muslim bias. The SPLC falsely claimed that Quilliam and Nawaz were anti-Muslim extremists, naming them in its Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, which is intended to be used by journalists and often leads to Twitter attacks.
Nawaz successfully sued the SPLC: the result was a settlement agreement in which the SPLC paid Quilliam a $3.375 million settlement and issued a retraction and apology for its false statements about Quilliam. Wow. That’s a big deal.
And now it appears that the prospect of such large payouts may lead other persons and organizations who have been defamed by the SPLC to bring lawsuits. Tyler O’Neil just wrote an article entitled “‘About 60 Organizations’ Are Considering a Lawsuit Against the SPLC Following $3M Nawaz Settlement.” The article notes the case of the Ruth Institute, run by (former?) libertarian Jennifer Roback Morse, which was listed as a hate group by SPLC merely because it opposes same sex marriage:
“Truthfully, I have not been following the activities of the SPLC too closely,” Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute, an organization that lost its credit card processor, Vanco Payments, over the SPLC’s “hate group” labeling last year, told PJ Media. “Pursuing our mission is more important than attempting to take on the behemoth of the SPLC.”
“I must say, though, this apology to Mr. Nawaz has caused us to consider our options,” Morse added, cryptically.
Another group that has been targeted by the SPLC is Prager Videos, associated with Dennis Prager. While the SPLC does not specifically state that Prager Videos is a hate group, it does attempt to attack it through unethical guilt-by-association claims.
The SPLC is used by other companies to deny service to certain groups, as the example concerning the Ruth Institute and Vanco Payments indicates. Perhaps if the SPLC were hit with more successful lawsuits, these other companies would stop trusting the SPLC’s pronouncements.
Another example of defamation law pushing back against wrongful conduct involves Jordan Peterson. Bloomsburg University professor Wendy Lynne Lee called Peterson an “incel misogynist” and “committed white nationalist.” (“Incel” is shorthand for an involuntary celibate—a man who cannot attract women—but Peterson is married and has children.) Peterson threatened to sue Lee, who then was forced to apologize and withdraw her statement. Lee did so in the most reluctant way, saying: “As per threat to sue for libel, I hereby apologize to Jordan Peterson for referring to him as an involuntary celibate (incel), a misogynist, a committed white nationalist, and someone who has descended into rank bigotry.” She later wrote: “I find it absurd. Many have actually said these things about Peterson and at much greater length.”
Not much of a defense and not much contrition. But that is the point. The law forces bad people to respect others.
I think these limited victories have an important message. When social justice warriors are forced to pay a price for their misdeeds, they generally back down. The problem is that their employers in the media (see the case of TBS commentator Samantha Bee) and the universities don’t impose meaningful consequences; if they did, much of the current craziness would fly away.