from the not-how-it-works-dersh dept
Famed law professor Alan Dershowitz is at it again. He’s now suing CNN for defamation in a SLAPP suit, because he’s upset that CNN did not provide an entire quote he made during the impeachment trial before the US Senate, claiming that because he was quoted out of context, it resulted in people believing something different than what he actually meant with a quote. Reading the lawsuit, the argument is not all that different from the defamation claim made by another Harvard Law professor, Larry Lessig, earlier this year, in which he accused the NY Times and a reporter there of defamation for taking his comments out of context. Lessig later dropped that lawsuit.
In both cases, these law professors are effectively arguing that when they make convoluted arguments, you must include all of the nuances and context, or you might face defamation claims. That’s incredibly chilling to free speech, and not how defamation law works. Dershowitz’s complaint is that during the trial, he made the following claim:
?The only thing that would make a quid pro quo unlawful is if the quo were somehow illegal. Now we talk about motive. There are three possible motives that a political figure could have. One, a motive in the public interest and the Israel argument would be in the public interest. The second is in his own political interest and the third, which hasn?t been mentioned, would be his own financial interest, his own pure financial interest, just putting money in the bank. I want to focus on the second one for just one moment. Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest and, mostly you are right, your election is in the public interest, and if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
Dershowitz is upset that CNN aired a segment that showed just that final sentence:
Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest and, mostly you are right, your election is in the public interest, and if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.
But here’s the thing: CNN also did air the full segment. And Dershowitz admits this. He’s just upset that at other times they only aired part of it, and that some commentators don’t paraphrase it the way he wanted them to. Here’s where he admits that CNN did, in fact, air the entire clip:
Immediately after Professor Dershowitz presented his argument, CNN employees, Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper, played the entire clip properly, so CNN knew for certain that Professor Dershowitz had prefaced his remarks with the qualifier that a quid pro quo could not include an illegal act. That portion then disappeared in subsequent programming.
It disappeared because the longer quote is long, and people were focused on the key part — that final sentence. Many people — including some on CNN — mocked Dershowitz for those remarks. Because they’re ludicrous. Even with the full paragraph. But the mockable part is the final sentence, and that’s why it’s news. And the CNN commentators who mocked it were commentators — people paid to give their opinion on what Dershowitz said.
But, as with Lessig’s lawsuit, the complaint from Dershowitz is that commentator’s opinions about what was said differs from what was meant. But opinions cannot be defamatory. And if people misinterpreted what Dershowitz said, that’s on Dershowitz for not explaining it clearly enough. We’re in a world of trouble if people get to sue for defamation every time someone misunderstands their poorly made argument.
I can understand why it’s frustrating for people to completely misunderstand your argument. It happens all the time to lots of people — including myself. It happens quite often when people try to make carefully nuanced arguments. But misunderstanding, or even misrepresenting, a more nuanced argument is not defamation. And nothing in Dershwotiz’s lawsuit changes that.
Dershowitz’s lawsuit hangs its hat on the Masson v. New Yorker Supreme Court ruling from 1991. Dershowitz’s complaint describes that ruling as follows:
… the Court held that a media organization can be held liable for damages when it engages in conduct that changes the meaning of what a public figure has actually said. While Masson involved the use of quotation marks to falsely attribute words to Jeffrey Masson, the law that the case created is broad, and unequivocally denies first amendment protections to a media organization that takes deliberate and malicious steps to change the meaning of what a public figure has said. That is exactly what CNN did when it knowingly omitted the portion of Professor Dershowitz?s words that preceded the clip it played time and time again.
This is… not an accurate portrayal of the Masson case or ruling. And, yes, I recognize that there’s some irony in Dershowitz claiming its defamation to misrepresent himself while his lawsuit then misrepresents a key Supreme Court case that it relies on. The Masson case is a fun one to read. In involves an article (and then a book made out of the article) about an academic where it appears that the author didn’t just selectively quote the academic, but made up quotes. The ruling compares the quotes in the article to the tape recordings of interviews to note just how different the quotes in the story are from what was actually said. That’s… not what is happening here. It is true that one of the quotes in the Masson case involved selectively excising some of a quote, but that was done in a truly egregious way. It wasn’t that they left out context, it was that they excised a middle portion, to make a later portion appear that it was referring to something much earlier, rather than what was excised.
That is… not what happened to Dershowitz. Indeed, the Masson ruling works against Dershowitz in many ways. It actually says that you have to expect the press to take your long rambling comments and tighten them up, because that’s part of journalism:
Even if a journalist has tape-recorded the spoken statement of a public figure, the full and exact statement will be reported in only rare circumstances. The existence of both a speaker and a reporter; the translation between two media, speech and the printed word; the addition of punctuation; and the practical necessity to edit and make intelligible a speaker’s perhaps rambling comments, all make it misleading to suggest that a quotation will be reconstructed with complete accuracy. The use or absence of punctuation may distort a speaker’s meaning, for example, where that meaning turns upon a speaker’s emphasis of a particular word. In other cases, if a speaker makes an obvious misstatement, for example by unconscious substitution of one name for another, a journalist might alter the speaker’s words but preserve his intended meaning. And conversely, an exact quotation out of context can distort meaning, although the speaker did use each reported word.
In all events, technical distinctions between correcting grammar and syntax and some greater level of alteration do not appear workable, for we can think of no method by which courts or juries would draw the line between cleaning up and other changes, except by reference to the meaning a statement conveys to a reasonable reader. To attempt narrow distinctions of this type would be an unnecessary departure from First Amendment principles of general applicability, and, just as important, a departure from the underlying purposes of the tort of libel as understood since the latter half of the 16th century. From then until now, the tort action for defamation has existed to redress injury to the plaintiff’s reputation by a statement that is defamatory and false.
In the Masson case, the Court did find that many of the changes to the text, including that one section, involved a “material” difference in meaning, and therefore could be found defamatory by a jury. But this case is very, very different than what Dershowitz is claiming about CNN. They didn’t quote his whole line, but there is no requirement they quote his entire argument.
Then there’s the whole damages bit. According to Dershowitz, his reputation was damaged to the tune of $300 million because some people made fun of him on CNN, and it’s all their fault that they didn’t understand his poorly made argument. The fucking entitlement of this guy.
The damage to Professor Dershowitz?s reputation does not have to be imagined. He was openly mocked by most of the top national talk show hosts and the comments below CNN?s videos show a general public that has concluded that Professor Dershowitz had lost his mind.
Being mocked on TV is proof of damages? Really, now? How fragile is Dersh’s ego here? Multiple times in the lawsuit, Dershowitz’s lawyer (yes, he found an actual Florida man lawyer to file this lawsuit) talks about how only playing part of his long silly answer would lead people to believe that Dersh had “lost his mind”:
The very notion of that was preposterous and foolish on its face, and that was the point: to falsely paint Professor Dershowitz as a constitutional scholar and intellectual who had lost his mind. With that branding, Professor Dershowitz?s sound and meritorious arguments would then be drowned under a sea of repeated lies.
If only airing one sentence of your preposterous argument makes you look like you’ve lost your mind, perhaps the problem is in how you frame your arguments.
This is yet another SLAPP suit. Florida has an anti-SLAPP law, but it’s a mixed bag in terms of how strong it is. Of course, as with many SLAPP suits, the real goal is likely to just be intimidation, rather than to actually win a vexatious nonsense lawsuit.