Congresswoman Threatens To Sue Newspaper For 'Liable' Over Critical Column

from the first,-hire-a-better-lawyer... dept

If you're a politician -- especially one elected to the House of Representatives, taking a bit of criticism is sort of part of the job description. Back in November, the Florida Times-Union had a column by Ron Littlepage that was critical of Rep. Corrine Brown. If you read it, it's typical columnist fodder, and not all that different than you could find in plenty of other publications concerning this issue or that issue where the columnist disagreed with the politician's position. However, Rep. Brown apparently didn't like it at all, and had her lawyer threaten the newspaper, claiming the column was defamation.

First off, a politician accusing a newspaper of defamation due to a critical column is (1) unlikely to get anywhere in the courts (2) is likely a First Amendment violation and (3) is just a bad idea because all it does is call much more attention to both the critical comments and the amazingly thin skin of the politician in question.

But, if you read through the actual threat letter and the column (included at the end of this post), you realize that in this case, Rep. Brown's threats are even more ridiculous. First, the main thrust of the claim of defamation is that Rep. Brown "has delivered nothing for her minority constituents and is only feathering her own nest while in Washington." The (rather serious) problem? Littlepage's column does no such thing. Generally speaking, if you're going to accuse someone of defamation, it helps to actually use what they say, and not pretend they said something different. Specifically, rather than saying the above, Littlepage asks a question (twice):
Second, what exactly has Brown done for her minority constituents during the 17 years she's been in Congress?

Too many African-Americans continue to live in poverty. Too many African-Americans are out of work. Too many African-American youth are the perpetrators or victims of violent crime. Too many African-American students lag behind in school or drop out.

Brown promotes herself as one who brings home the pork. Her campaign slogan proclaims "Corrine Delivers!"

Besides feathering her own nest while in Washington, just exactly what has Brown delivered for her minority constituents?
At no point does he specifically state that she's delivered "nothing." He uses a rhetorical device of asking a question. Considering that the "nothing" claim would be the (weak) claim to any defamation case, the fact that he didn't actually say it looks pretty bad.

And, we're not done with how ridiculous this is yet. Beyond the questionable threat to have a politician sue a newspaper over criticism, and the claim that the columnist said something he did not, the lawyer writing the threat letter warned that it was Rep. Brown's "intent to bring an action for liable or slander." Yes, "liable." Even leaving aside the fact that "slander" is spoken words, and libel is written, so it makes no sense to include "slander," you would think a lawyer wouldn't screwup the difference between "libel" and "liable," and that if they did, someone would have caught it in proofreading.

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  • identicon
    Scote, 22 Dec 2010 @ 2:39pm

    Point of correction on Libel vs. Slander

    It used to be that libel was written and slander was spoken, but no more. The rough idea behind libel is that libel is broader (published) and longer lasting and slander is more ephemeral (spoken). However, with internet forums, for instance, forum speech can be considered more like the back and forth of a conversation and be considered more like slander than libel.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Dec 2010 @ 2:45pm

    Florida, I am disappoint

    I'll be honest. I stopped reading your article when you said it was from Florida.

    I'm still disappointed in Florida from this story earlier this month. It seems someone is suing a Florida-based restaurant for not telling him how to properly eat grilled artichokes.

    I haven't had time to digest this yet. (pun intended)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Greg G, 22 Dec 2010 @ 3:12pm

      Re: Florida, I am disappoint

      I just read the story about the 'choke, and.. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?

      Next up, I'm going to sue someone because they didn't tell me a plantain wasn't a banana.

      Forget panning for gold, there's gold in them thar courtrooms!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Doug, 22 Dec 2010 @ 4:15pm

    There's a lesson here.

    You don't have to be all that smart to get elected to Congress.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Dec 2010 @ 4:24pm

    Spell checker

    Sounds like a classic spell checker mistake; someone writes a wrong word and the spell checker auto suggests the wrong option. Someone who is used to accepting spell checker auto suggestions on auto pilot will just accept and not even notice.

    As to proofreading, it is common to read what you expect to be there, not what is actually there (until someone else points it to you, then you cannot stop seeing it anymore).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      TheOldFart (profile), 22 Dec 2010 @ 5:56pm

      Re: Spell checker

      Easy fix for stuff like that.

      Make a proofreading pass by reading the text backwards.

      Try it. It often uncovers word choice errors you won't spot when reading forwards, for the reason you stated. Your brain doesn't know what words to expect next when reading backwards.

      I always do it on important stuff like resumes, letters of resignation and desperate pleas for affection that I scrawl on the walls of bathroom stalls. Er... uh... wait I meant... uh... hotel menus, that's it, hotel menus.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    toyotabedzrock (profile), 22 Dec 2010 @ 5:02pm

    I see the problem

    I think her main complaint might be her dislike of amendment 6.

    The reason is that if you divide a district up by city lines then you end up with all districts being mostly white and no African American or Hispanic representation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btrussell (profile), 22 Dec 2010 @ 6:16pm

    Everyone is liable to a lawyer.
    Lawyers are hired on their lie ability.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    misterdoug (profile), 22 Dec 2010 @ 11:15pm

    She has a bright future in the private sector

    Her campaign slogan proclaims "Corrine Delivers!"

    Good news! Pizza Hut is hiring.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    m1chael, 23 Dec 2010 @ 3:47am

    Go Gata!

    How did her infamous Youtube video not get referenced? -

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    sam sin, 24 Dec 2010 @ 1:19am

    when on the campaign trail, politicians always promise the people the earth. once elected, what do they do? nothing different to what she is doing. 'feathering their own nests' but not delivering on their promises is the norm. how do you know when a politician is lying? their mouth is moving!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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