Showing posts with label racism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label racism. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trump supporter vs. MSNBC's Joy Reid heats up for round 2, following reversal on free speech issues

It looks like the two-year-old defamation case by Trump supporter Roslyn La Liberte against MSNBC personality Joy Reid is about to heat up.

Racial Slurs and Other Not-So-Pleasantries

Eponymous host of MSNBC's ReidOut and "one of the few Black women to anchor a major American evening news program," Joy Reid has stirred up her share of schismatic controversy (e.g., "series of homophobic blog posts" (Glenn Greenwald), "casual Islamophobia" (Erik Wemple (pay wall))).  In June and July, on Twitter and Instagram, Reid called out MAGA-hat-bearing Roslyn La Liberte at a Simi Valley, California, City Council meeting (La Liberte at 4:17:45 to 4:19:57) for, as alleged in La Liberte's complaint, "yelling racial slurs at a minor," including that he would "'be the first deported ... dirty Mexican!,'" and "making ... racist statements and ... being racist."

A well circulated image of La Liberte and the 14-year-old boy at the council meeting, showing La Liberte mocking being choked but not actually talking to the boy, lent credence to Reid's characterization and its viral duplication.  Trolling responses came fast and furious in the Twittersphere and via email to La Liberte, the latter along the lines, "'You are a dirty white woman b***h,'" and "'I’m glad everyone in the entire world knows what a racist piece of s**t you are f**k you a*****e'" (asterisks in complaint).

However, La Liberte denied yelling racial slurs, and her story is backed up by the youth himself.  He described their exchange as "civil."  At least once during the meeting, a racial slur was directed at the boy, his mother said, but it wasn't uttered by La Liberte.  Cited in the complaint, Fox 11 L.A. untangled the story (June 29, 2018).

 

'Racist,' as a Matter of Fact

La Liberte sued Reid in the Eastern District of New York on a single count of defamation.  Alleging defamation per se, La Liberte in the complaint asserted, "Accusations of racist conduct are libelous on their face without resort to additional facts, and, as proven by this case, subject the accused to ridicule, hate, and embarrassment."

That point alone, on the merits, is interesting.  When I made a similar claim many years ago, colleagues and observers told me that an accusation of racism is opinion only, devoid of fact and incapable of defamatory meaning, even if one were asked to resign one's job as a result of the accusation.  Other colleagues, whose counsel I favor, disagreed and asserted that accusing an academic of racism is akin to accusing a youth coach of a child sex offense, in that the claim will persist indefinitely if one does not powerfully contest it.  Distinction between an individual's "racism," and "institutional" or "systemic" racism might complicate the legal analysis, but popular culture has pondered that distinction only recently.

Anti-SLAPP as the Sword of Goliath

A second compelling issue in the La Liberte case is the operation of anti-SLAPP law.  Anti-SLAPP laws, which vary in their particulars across the states, typically allow a defendant to attain fast dismissal of a lawsuit that is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," that is, a lawsuit through which the plaintiff means to use tort law to suppress the defendant's exercise of civil rights, such as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition.  

That sounds good, but problems with anti-SLAPP law are legion.  One big problem is that American defamation law already tilts wildly in favor of defendants, a First Amendment prophylaxis gone corybantic, such that plaintiffs cannot usually get anywhere near the requisite burden of proof without the benefit of discovery.  Anti-SLAPP procedure allows the defendant to terminate the case before discovery can even happen.  

Joy Reid (Luke Harold CC0 1.0)
Designed in principle to protect, for paradigmatic example, a grassroots environmental campaign against the might of an unscrupulous real estate developer, anti-SLAPP in reality is more often deployed by the Goliaths of the latter ilk against Davidic pursuers.  Anti-SLAPP (ab)users include President Trump, Bill Cosby, and Big Media.  No wonder anti-SLAPP is the darling of the media defense bar.  The sad thing is that it's convinced the nonprofit media advocacy crowd to play along.

The proliferation of anti-SLAPP laws at the state level has generated a circuit split over what to do with them when a defamation case lands in federal court on diversity jurisdiction.  The analysis boils down to whether anti-SLAPP law is procedural, in which case it may not override federal rules, or substantive, in which case the federal court must apply the law of the state that governs the case.  The last couple of years have seen the emergence of a circuit split on the question, though the most recent precedents (2d, 5th, 11th, D.C. Circuits, contra 1st, 9th Circuits) point to the procedural conclusion, with which I agree.  

As a result, defamation cases that would have been smothered at birth in state court are given a chance to gasp for air in federal court.  Meanwhile, media advocates, including John Oliver—with whom I am loath to disagree, but he just doesn't get it—have been pushing hard for federal anti-SLAPP legislation.  A bill is pending in Congress, and with left-wing media advocates and right-wing mega-corporations on the same side, David's death blow might be but weeks away.

La Liberte arose amid this anti-SLAPP circuit split and was, in fact, the occasion on which the Second Circuit joined the recent majority trend.  The court reasoned that the California anti-SLAPP procedure, the defamation having occurred in California, is incompatible with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56, governing motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures and the Involuntarily Infamous

La Liberte at the
City Council meeting
Also while the case rested with the Second Circuit, the court reversed the trial court on one more issue, the erroneous classification of La Liberte as a limited-purpose public figure.  That classification would compel La Liberte to prove the often fatal-in-fact fault standard "actual malice," that Reid knew her statements were false or was reckless with regard to their truth or falsity.  

La Liberte had not pleaded actual malice.  And, according to the court, her activism in speaking at city council meetings did not convert her from a private figure to a public figure.  La Liberte was never singled out in news coverage, the court observed, until after the alleged defamation catapulted her to public attention.  A defendant who is responsible for making a plaintiff infamous cannot thereafter escape liability by characterizing the plaintiff as a public figure.  

Incidentally, it's typically ironic that the media defendant here, Reid, purported to defend her free speech with the anti-SLAPP law while seeking to use the First Amendment-protected petitioning of the city council of the plaintiff, La Liberte, to defeat her effort to protect her reputation.

Enter 'the Lawyer for the Damned'

After remand to the Eastern District of New York, La Liberte terminated her representation by Wade, Grunberg & Wilson.  WG&W is a self-described "boutique firm" in Atlanta that boasts of a plaintiff's defamation practice, not a common thing, but maybe a growth area in our polarized post-truth society.  "The law of defamation is nuanced, peppered with landmines under the First Amendment, Anti-SLAPP Statutes, absolute immunities, and qualified privileges," WG&W writes on its website. "We know where those landmines are and, more importantly, how to navigate successfully around them."  WG&W notified the court of its withdrawal on September 28, 2020.

Wood, 2011 (Gage
Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0)
The reason I suspect the case might now heat up, or at least jump on the express train to settlement town, is that on October 5, 2020, L. Lin Wood entered his appearance for the plaintiff.  Wood already had signed on some of the court papers, but he seems now to be stepping front and center.  Wood's breakthrough claim to fame was representing Richard Jewell, the man wrongly accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (there's a 2019 movie directed by Clint Eastwood).  His subsequent client list includes JonBenét Ramsey's parents, Gary Condit, Herman Cain, Elon Musk, and the Catholic high school student in the 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Nick Sandmann, as against The Washington Post.  Wood boasts that CBS news personality Dan Rather tagged him, "the lawyer for the damned."

The case is La Liberte v. Reid, No. 1:18-cv-05398 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), reversed and remanded by No. 19-3574 (2d Cir. July 15, 2020).  I've not mentioned an ISP immunity issue in the case, on which the Second Circuit affirmed in favor of the plaintiff; read more by Eric Goldman (July 30, 2020).

Friday, July 10, 2020

Linguists' famous feud evidences defamatory power of 'racist' charge

As I've written and spoken about in the past, in the 20-aughts, I was an unwilling combatant, enveloped collaterally, in "the Race Wars" at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (epilog on my part).  If you've never heard of the Race Wars, you're to be forgiven.  It happened in American flyover country, where nothing in academia matters.  Not like when something happens at UCLA, and we get all vexed about it, like it's the first time, because now it's happened to someone important.  Nevertheless, my experience was life-altering for me.  And as often happens in the course of life's affection for irony, trauma leaves knowledge, wisdom, and even enlightenment in its wake.

One thing the Race Wars did was turn me 180 degrees into a plaintiff's advocate for defamation and privacy torts, even while vigorously maintaining my bona fides as a defender of the First Amendment and freedoms of expression and information.  Oddly enough, as a lawyer in the 1990s, I had once researched, for a case, the question of whether, or to what extent, an accusation of "racist" is capable of defamatory meaning.  I had concluded then, nearly never, even if uttered upon a false factual predicate.  And I was untroubled by that conclusion, because it fit with my then-staunch allegiance to free speech near-absolutism.  When, a decade later, the R-word was weaponized against me—falsely, unless one is speaking systemically, without reference to individual culpability, but that wasn't a thing until recently—I reassessed my analysis.

Yet my research showed, still, a decade ago, that it would be exceedingly difficult, impossible in many jurisdictions, to eke a successful defamation claim out of "racist," even when an accuser is signaling, by wink and nod, a false factual basis for the charge.  Common law evolution is slow, and precedents had mounted upon the conclusion that "racist" is a matter of opinion only, incorporating no assertion of fact, and thus incapable, as a matter of law, of lowering one's estimation in the eyes of the community.  Charged with a false accusation that threatened to end my career, that conclusion felt wrong.  If one were expected to resign one's job upon the mere fact of an accusation, regardless of its veracity, and regardless of any defense—I was asked to—then that seemed to me a sufficiently horrific charge to fit the bill for defamation.

In the years since, I have seen the same dynamic play out in cases around the country, to other people, in academia, employment, politics, and other contexts, repeatedly reinvigorating that nagging question, whether "racist" is merely an expression of opinion, or can carry defamatory meaning.  So it was with great interest, while on involuntary summer/pandemic hiatus from UMass Law, catching up with my reading, that I came upon a little story about the accusation "racist" in a Tom Wolfe book.  I'm breaking hiatus momentarily to share this story with you.

Tom Wolfe's Take on 'Everett v. Chomsky'
I just read Tom Wolfe's Kingdom of Speech (2016), about the origin of language, anthropologically speaking. Wolfe references a brilliant book I read some years ago, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), by Daniel Everett, about his language work (and much more) with the isolated Pirahã people in Brazil. What I didn't know was that Everett's book was one important salvo in a vast intellectual war, in anthropology circles, between Everett, and his supporters, and Noam Chomsky, and his acolytes, over Chomsky's theory of "universal grammar" (UG).  (I'm not going into detail on the theories here, because that's not my purpose.)  Everett's 2008 book pretty well laid out UG.

What Wolfe explained in Kingdom of Speech is that Chomsky's people were like a (socialist, but, like, really, socialist) cult; they had been merciless in defending UG against advancing science showing UG to be garbage (I generalize). They would go after scientists to undermine their work and in that way kept UG around as a dominant theory of language development for decades, despite what, we see clearly now, was a dearth of evidence. UG was less science and more belief system, or academic cult of personality, built around Chomsky.

Among the unusual features of the Pirahã language is a lack of verb tense, as well as other treatments of time and relativity (especially the omission of something called "recursion"; again, not going into it here) that make communication with us, speakers of the world's modern languages, very difficult. One could conclude that the Pirahã are not very smart, because they don't communicate the way we do. That's mistaken; it's apples and oranges. But it's difficult to perceive Pirahã intellect until one masters the language, and Everett was the first outsider who ever did, only after years of study (and he is a savant-level quick study).

So here's the pertinent part. Everett was burgeoningly famous for his research on the ground in Brazil. Chomsky hated field work in general and hated Everett in particular, whose research was exploding UG. So, in 2007, Chomsky's side engineered this, according to Wolfe:

"Everett was in the United States teaching at Illinois State University when he got a call from a canary with a PhD informing him that a Brazilian government agency, FUNAI, the Portuguese acronym for the National Indian Foundation, was denying him permission to return to the Pirahã ... on the grounds that what he had written about them was ... racist. He was dumbfounded." (Wolfe's ellipses and emphasis.)

Wolfe further explained:

"Everett expressed nothing but admiration for the Pirahã. But by this time, even giving the vaguest hint that you looked upon some—er—indigenous people as stone simple was no longer elitist. The word, by 2007, was 'racist.' And racist had become hard tar to remove.

"Racist ... out of that came the modern equivalent of the Roman Inquisition's declaring Galileo 'vehemently suspect of heresy' and placing him under house arrest for the last eight years of his life, making it impossible for him to continue his study of the universe. But the Inquisition was at least wide open about what it was doing. In Everett's case, putting an end to his work was a clandestine operation."

It turns out that Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, in 2008, was Everett's rejoinder to this attack. The book was wildly popular, exceeding even the bounds of scholarly readership (thus reaching me), and hammered the nails to shut UG's coffin.

Though things worked out all right for Everett, Wolfe's story evidences, as if more evidence were needed, the defamatory potential of that R-word charge—even at a time when I was being told to let it go, that "words [could] never hurt me."

Incidentally, and strangely collaterally irrelevantly, Wolfe and I both are graduates of Washington and Lee University. As I just read in parody,"Washington and Lee University votes to remove offensive name from school's title. Will now simply be known as 'University.'"