Our slander laws are convoluted, and as part of that convolution, they put certain Americans—celebrities and politicians, for instance—out of effective reach of their protection, and they put other Americans—journalists, for instance, functionally immune to their restrictions. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, in his Thursday Wall Street Journal op-ed, wants to niggle around their edges to improve them.
No. It’s time, to coin a phrase, to go big. Libel law, in fact, is simple enough to simplify: if someone lies about or otherwise slanders another, the liar/slanderer is liable. If someone mistakenly mischaracterizes another and doesn’t correct the mischaracterization when advised of the error, mischaracterizer is liable, if to a lesser degree.
That’s pretty simple and straightforward. The only grey area—and this is where juries earn their pay—is in that area between lie and mistaken mischaracterization.
That straightforward correction of slander laws can be made simpler, yet. The new law should apply to the press—it’s really not that hard for a pressman to tell the truth, except, apparently, in the minds of those of the journalist guild—and it should apply equally to the politician or celebrity who’s the victim.
But, but—according to Reynolds, New York Times Co v Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruling that created the imbalances involving the press and celebrities and politicians,
grew out of a concerted effort by Southern states to use libel lawsuits as a weapon in a sort of asymmetric warfare. Civil-rights organizers had powerful support from national media organizations, but local judges and juries were sympathetic to segregation.
No, it didn’t. Those judges’ rulings and their influences on juries via judicial instructions to those juries had nothing to do with slander, per se, and everything to do with those judges acting in accordance with their personal agendas rather than in accordance with the text of the laws before them.
Sullivan needs to be reversed.