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.

Filed Under: corrine brown, criticism, defamation, journalism, libel, politics, slander


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  1. 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).

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