Showing posts with label Dario Milo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dario Milo. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

'Seminal' South African defamation case instructs on limited remedial reach of American speech torts

A politician prevailed in defamation against a critic who accused him of nepotism in a South African Supreme Court of Appeal case that a media law expert called "seminal."

Julius Malema in 2011, then a member of the ANC Youth League

Economic Freedom Fighters, a self-described "radical and militant economic emancipation movement" (EFF, definitely not to be confused with the Electronic Frontier Foundation), criticized former South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel of "patently nepotistic and corrupt process" in recommending to public appointment "a dodgy character called Edward Kieswetter, who is not only a relative of Trevor Manuel, but a close business associate and companion."  EFF published its statement on Twitter to 750,000 followers, and EFF leader Julius Malema retweeted the statement to his 2 million followers.

The Gauteng high court ruled the statement defamatory, and the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) affirmed in December 2020, though remanded for reconsideration of the award, 500,000 rand, about US$33,000, because of procedural error.

South African lawyer and scholar Dario Milo, also an English solicitor and expert with the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression project, described the case as the most seminal in South African defamation law in two decades, writing about the case for his blog, Musings on the Media, the Daily Maverick, and The International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) blog.  Important, Milo wrote, was that the court allowed recovery for a genuinely aggrieved plaintiff, even if a public figure, upon a dearth of evidence to support the defendant's defamatory allegation.

Trevor Manuel, when Finance Minister in 2008
Photo by Valter Campanato/ABr CC BY 3.0 BR
According to Milo, the law should not protect the likes of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who weaponized defamation in 15 suits against news media and political commentators, nor of Johnny Depp, whose suit against his ex-wife was recently bounced by English courts.  (Depp's suit resulted in an awkward factual determination that he had beat up his wife, a legal result Milo characterized as an "own goal."  I like that.)  But the genuinely aggrieved, public officials and figures such as Manuel included, deserve their day in court, he maintained.  And the SCA ruling ensures that "dignity" will not be sacrificed even on the altar of political speech.

From an American perspective, the case offers some thought-provoking points of divergence from First Amendment doctrine.  The South African common law of defamation, rooted in English common law, is not so different from the American.  But the American speech-protective doctrine of New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964), justly born of the civil rights era, but, I assert, run amuck since, marked an enduring point of divergence between America and the world.

An important if nuanced divergence arises in the problem of EFF's culpability.  As to the underlying truth of the alleged defamation, EFF was sunk; the defense could not refute Manuel's denial that he is "related" to Kieswetter.  Looking, then, to culpability, the South African court found EFF in utter dereliction of duty.  It had no facts to support the allegation of nepotism and made no effort to ascertain any.

In the United States, the Sullivan rule of "actual malice" would require a plaintiff to prove that the defendant published falsity knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth.  At first blush, that approach might seem compatible with the South African ruling.  But in practice, instructed by a Supreme Court that places a heavy thumb on the scale to favor a defendant's political speech, the rule de facto for American journalists has been that ignorance is bliss.  However much journalism ethics might counsel a duty of investigation, courts have been unwilling to find actual malice without smoking-gun evidence that the defendant had contrary facts within reach and deliberately ignored them.

In recent years, there has been a modest uptick in litigation over alleged actual malice, and I suspect, indeed hope, that that might be a function of a correction.  Recognizing the folly of a de facto bar on defamation suits by persons in politics has undesirable collateral effects, inter alia, deterring political involvement and feeding divisive discourse.  I wonder that American judges, consciously or not, might be increasingly inclined to treat the actual malice standard more as the "recklessness" rule it purports to be.

2019 EFF campaign poster
Photo by DI Scott CC BY-SA 4.0

Another curious takeaway from the South African case is the remedy.  Though the SCA muddied the outcome with its remand on procedural grounds, the court had no substantive objection to high court orders that would raise First Amendment issues.  For in addition to the R500,000 monetary award, the high court ordered that EFF take down its statement and not repeat it subsequently, and that EFF apologize to Manuel.

American thinking about defamation has limited remedies to the reputational-loss proxy of pecuniary award.  First, to "interdict" subsequent speech, to use the South African legal term, goes too far in U.S. remedies, violating the rule against prior restraint—probably.*  There has been some case law lately suggesting that that rule might yield in exceptional circumstances, such as when a destitute or determined defendant cannot pay recompense but has the will and means, especially through readily accessible electronic media, to persist in the defamation.

(*Or probably not. I am kindly reminded that injunction is available now as a defamation remedy in two-thirds of U.S. states.  Professor Eugene Volokh's 2019 publication presently is the truly seminal work in the area; read more, especially the thorough appendices.  Injunctions are variable in kind, for example, preliminary versus post-trial, and the circumstances play into the constitutional analysis.  Regardless, a confluence of legal trends and a changing world seems likely to result in constitutional approval of the injunction remedy in appropriate circumstances. —CORRECTION added Jan. 13.)

Second, a compulsion of apology would unnecessarily abrogate a defendant's right not to speak.  And how genuine an apology might one expect, anyway?  Yet Milo ranked it as important that apology is on the table in South Africa.  For as he observed, a public apology, even if empty of sentiment, is often the symbolic gesture that a defamation plaintiff truly desires, even to the exclusion of financial compensation.

This empirical observation, well established in American legal culture, too, highlights a limitation of the First Amendment system.  Even friend-of-N.Y. Times v. Sullivan Anthony Lewis, in his seminal case biography, recognized criticism of the doctrine in that the Court's rigid constitutionalization of state defamation law foreclosed state experimentation with remedies that might prove more socially desirable and judicially efficient.

I'm not ready to abandon the First Amendment.  But we should accept the invitation of comparative law to be critical of American norms and willing to talk about change.  EFF awaits our RSVP.

The case is Economic Freedom Fighters v. Manuel (711/2019) [2020] ZASCA 172 (17 December 2020) (SAFLII).