In a year when journalism is running wild on the Internet and the transgressions of the press have made headlines, e.g. CNN’s nerve gas broadcast, the fabricated stories in The New Republic and The Boston Globe, and the voice mail break-in by a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, it may be the better part of valor for the press to rest on the protection it has rather than seek to expand it through new legislation such as Anti-SLAPP laws.

These laws were initially passed to protect critics of real estate developers who were silenced with expensive defamation suits—not the press. A lone environmentalist, for example, would show up at a zoning meeting complaining about a development and the developer would sue the environmentalist—not the press—for the remarks made. A David and Goliath contest would follow. The developer’s deeper pockets, however, usually prevailed and the environmentalist was left with an unaffordable legal bill and no desire to take on the developer again.

Whether the press should get behind bills restricting such suits and push them through state legislatures is another question. If this last year is any test, and it may very well not be, a larger threat to libel protection of the press than frivolous libel suits may be its own transgressions and the deep black newshole of the Internet.

There is no need to report in detail here the transgressions by Stephen Glass in The New Republic and Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle in The Boston Globe, the nerve gas disaster of CNN, and the $10 million voice mail hullabaloo of The Cincinnati Enquirer. The press has few defenders for its actions in these cases.

But what about the Net? It’s not been a great year there, either.

The Wall Street Journal reported on its World Wide Web page that Secret Service personnel had seen President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in a compromising position and then retracted it four days later. The Dallas Morning News Web site and the paper itself reported the same thing and then both the paper and the Web site retracted, too. Is on-line journalism off-the-wall?

One would think so if the case of Matt Drudge, the America Online columnist, is any example. Drudge reported a “source” told him that White House staffer Sidney Blumenthal “beat his wife.”

Blumenthal sued AOL and Drudge for libel. The court dismissed AOL from the case because of an exemption in the Internet Decency statute that immunizes on-line service providers from libel suits in most cases. The case continues against Drudge. He maintains he is a “reporter,” entitled to the usual protections reporters have in libel suits under the Sullivan case.

If Drudge is correct, and it is hard to see why he is not, what does that say about the deep dark newshole of the Internet? For journalists traditionally boxed in by time and space, the Net is nirvana—an infinite newshole.

But if everyone acts like Drudge, what does that say about the legal protection given to reporters, editors and publishers in the famous New York Times-Sullivan case? If Drudge is correct and he is covered by Sullivan, so is everyone else on the Net who acts like—and reports like—Drudge.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 Web sites go on line daily. It is true many, if not most, of these Web sites are either commercial or personal sites. Hundreds if not thousands of these sites, however, report information that is news-like, and there are scores of pure news sites like Drudge’s.

Every communication on the Net is subject to libel laws, but only on-line service providers like America OnLine have any immunity from libel suits. It does not take much imagination, therefore, to foresee a whole line of Drudges claiming protection under Sullivan.

Since “malice” in Sullivan does not mean malice at all but rather not entertaining doubt about the accuracy of the story, the way to prove a doubt-free mind is to prove reliance on sources. Simply put, if a reporter or editor has no reason to doubt a source, there’s no liability for libel even if the source says something wildly libelous such as Blumenthal “has a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up.”

The temptation, therefore, for the on-line press, and as far as that goes, the main-line press, too, is to print anything a source says and then disclaim responsibility for the truth of the statement. This is a complete change from pre-Sullivan, when the press was required, generally, to stand behind the truth of its statements, not merely how well they were sourced.

There is a suspicion, therefore, totally unprovable, that the freedom enjoyed by Sullivan has led to a climate which makes possible the recent transgressions of the press. Manufactured sources (Boston Globe, New Republic), inappropriate sources (CNN), any source (Drudge) certainly make one wonder whether these transgressions could have taken place pre-Sullivan.

The big question is: when the courts are presented with more Net cases like Drudge—or even Drudge’s case itself—will they apply Sullivan in rote fashion? If the courts do not, which is certainly possible, will they then embrace one set of rules for the Net and another for newspapers and magazines (print)?

Since the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the Net is entitled to the greatest protection afforded by the First Amendment, it seems unlikely courts would adopt a two-track approach for libel on the Net versus in print. The risk is that courts may apply lower standards for libel protection on the Net, which then might drag libel protection for print down to that level.

There have been major changes in the news business since the 1964 Sullivan decision, when the three networks plus The Times, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek were arguably a news oligopoly. While technically irrelevant for a court’s decision, the realpolitik of the news business today is that if one of the major news entities is hit with a huge libel verdict, it will not go down the tubes, unlike 1964, when The Times would have gone bankrupt had Sullivan and his peers succeeded in the series of libel suits they brought for coverage of the civil rights movement.

Accordingly, courts may not be as sympathetic to the press because of the different environment in which news presently exists compared to the time of the civil rights movement, particularly if the present environment is the deep newshole of the Net.

Thus Internet problems pose a greater threat to the press than defamation suits filed against individuals active in public affairs. Typically Anti-SLAPP laws apply only to those who “petition” government, that is, appear at zoning meetings and the like.

In New York, for example, an Anti-SLAPP law has been on the books for five years and has never been used by a media defendant, since the coverage of the law is very narrow. It applies to suits involving public “petition and participation,” e.g. a developer applying for a building permit bringing a suit against someone who seeks to “comment on” such application.

In California, however, at least in the lower courts, the press has had some success in using the state anti-SLAPP law, which is far broader than New York’s. In addition to protecting those who “petition” government, it also applies to those exercising their First Amendment rights “in connection with a public issue.”

California publishers have been quick to pick up on the language that protects free speech rights and have persuaded several lower California courts to apply the anti-SLAPP law to them. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, has successfully used the Anti-SLAPP laws several times to ward off what it believed to be frivolous lawsuits.

In one case, it had written a long investigative piece on More University, an alternate life-style college in California offering courses on “sensuality,” “mutual pleasurable stimulation…,” and “niceness/meanness.”

More University sued for libel and the paper was able to defeat the lawsuit by using the California Anti-SLAPP law.

The California Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue of whether the Anti-SLAPP statute deprives libel plaintiffs of their First Amendment rights. Believe it or not, there is a First Amendment right to sue.

Generally speaking, however, states can hem in the rights of libel plaintiffs to sue, since the right to sue for libel is a state-given right (there is no federal law). States, however, cannot dilute this right below a certain irreducible minimum. Whether a law like the California anti-SLAPP one as applied to the press goes below this irreducible minimum, only the California or U.S. Supreme Court knows, and no Anti-SLAPP case has reached that level yet.

Anti-SLAPP laws are suited best for frivolous lawsuits. They are of no use in serious libel lawsuits when the plaintiff can make a good case at the outset.

Anti-SLAPP law presents the libel plaintiff with a high hurdle to jump before he can even get his suit off the ground. He must show the court he has a “probability” of prevailing on the claim before he has started. Even under the Sullivan case, which gave the press vast protections, he faces no such burden.

Under Sullivan, he does not have to prove to the court a probability he will succeed. All he is required to do is show the court that he has a reasonable likelihood of success. If he does, he then is entitled to go to the next stage in the suit and examine reporters and editors in what is technically known as an “examination before trial.” It is this stage, before the case even reaches trial, which is very expensive for libel defendants and that Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to eliminate for the frivolous case.

During the pre-trial stage in a libel case, the defendant’s search is for “absence of malice.” Editors and reporters know that “malice” as used in Sullivan does not mean ill-will at all. Justice William J. Brennan, who coined the phrase in Sullivan, later said he wished he never used it because of the confusion the phrase created. What it means generally is that a reporter or editor “entertained no serious doubt” as to the accuracy of what was published.

It becomes very expensive to prove this innocence, and libel plaintiffs can take years to probe the editorial conscience to ascertain whether there is any doubt, meanwhile running up huge legal expenses. Many publishers and insurance companies would prefer to settle and save these expenses.

It is quite true that if all Anti-SLAPP laws had the reach of the California law and could be applied to libel suits against the press, some of these suits could “go away,” saving everyone time and expense. There are many libel plaintiffs who may not be able to prove at the outset they had a probability of winning. Since many libel suits are brought only to protect “amour propre,” and so waste the valuable time of editors and reporters, this would be a good thing.

All this being said, it is hard to be very enthusiastic about a concerted effort to extend the protection of anti-SLAPP laws to the press. It may be a better strategy to limit such suits to the precise meaning of the acronym SLAPP, “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participants,” as originally intended.

James C. Goodale, a Debevoise & Plimpton lawyer, is former Vice Chairman of The New York Times and host and co-producer of The Telecommunications and Information Revolution in New York City, WNYE, Ch. 25.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment