Monday, July 19, 2021

Libel, Defamation, Journalism, and Gossips

I started The Gossips of Rivertown eleven and a half years ago. The very first post was published on January 20, 2010. Despite the name, which I borrowed from a 1848 novel by Alice B. Neal, a woman writer born and raised in Hudson, Gossips is a serious journalistic endeavor. My principal goal in starting Gossips and in keeping it going for more than a decade has always been to share information about Hudson--to make people aware of what's happening in our city and what is being planned for its future and to help people appreciate its rich and storied past. 

As a collateral outcome, Gossips has become a forum for readers to express opinions and share information in comments. In the past year, this has become problematic. On several occasions recently, I have been threatened with legal action for publishing readers' comments that report negative information or express negative opinions regarding the actions of people who are elected officials or public figures. For this reason, I am inspired to review for readers the law regarding libel and defamation. 

The principle that truth is an absolute defense against charges of libel is well established. It was established in the laws of this country in 1735, well before the American Revolution. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution (1789) protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In more recent decades, there have been some significant court decisions regarding libel and the press. In 1964, in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the court determined that public officials could win a suit for libel only if they could demonstrate actual malice on the part of reporters or publishers. Actual malice was defined as "knowledge that the information was false" or publishing information "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The decision was later extended to cover public figures.

There is also Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which applies to Gossips' role as a forum for readers. Section 230 states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." I am advised that this effectively immunizes Gossips from liability for statements made by commenters on the blog.

For those who wish to threaten Gossips with libel suits, be advised that Gossips has legal representation. Communications regarding such allegations should directed to John K. Friedman, Esq.
COPYRIGHT 2021 CAROLE OSTERINK

31 comments:

  1. Keep up the good work Carole. This is an invaluable source of information for the community.

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  2. Absolutely, Carole, keep it up. It has been a superb source of information about our City and what our government is doing ever since it started and the newspapers were so feckless. Thanks you for all you have done, all the time spent in meetings, your accuracy and your archive. I was actually astounded to see how many 'page views' you now have. I remember the beginning.

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  3. Thank you Carole! Keep it real . We need your honesty and the light you shed on Hudson!

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  4. It seems like elected leaders threatening legal action against Gossips is worthy of coverage in and of itself.

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  5. Now, there is a list of names worth knowing. What thin skinned Hudson rogues are in that gallery?

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  6. The best defense is a strong offense. You are in good hands with John Friedman as your counsel.

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  7. Thank you, Carole! Your thoughtful and rigorous reporting is a mainstay for me and I’m grateful to you.

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  8. Diogenes of Sinope (l. c. 404-323 BCE) was a Greek Cynic philosopher best known for holding a lantern (or candle) to the faces of the citizens of Athens claiming he was searching for an honest man. He rejected the concept of "manners" as a lie and advocated complete truthfulness at all times and under any circumstance.

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  9. This site seems well organized and informative on the subject.

    https://www.dmlp.org/legal-guide/immunity-online-publishers-under-communications-decency-act

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  10. 1.

    That said (re: Section 230), a blog administrator who allows or even encourages individual commenters to defame others when the same administrator would deny the latter a response comes very close to aiding and abetting. At what point is the administrator not implicitly endorsing such views in editorial fashion?

    It would be an interesting test case no matter what Messrs. Friedman and Rasner believe. (Generally speaking, lawyers are wrong about half the time, and with notable exceptions our local lawyers are by and large very flawed creatures.)

    The present post paints a picture of Gossips as the hapless victim of selfless sharing and mere information. However, I ask readers to consider the following.

    In April of this year, Gossips’ attorney so disapproved of comments scrutinizing the FILMED and QUOTED statements of George Soros that the same attorney used these threads to launch an ad hominem attack on the commenter, pointedly unmasking the author’s name.

    When Gossips permitted this disgusting tirade (retyped below, though redacted to avoid repetition of the most inflammatory slurs), the target of the attack was denied a response. Only after vehement complaints to Gossips proved unsuccessful, an incident report was filed with the HPD against the lawyer and in view of potential provocations to violence - even from the lawyer himself. This action alone moved the blog administrator to remove the entire post the following day.

    If Gossips is as honest as Diogenes, and agrees to republish the following comments of her attorney (comments previously deemed worthwhile to stand alone here), then I’d ask Gossips’ readership to explain how words the administrator stood by - and also denied a response to - in any way enrich this blog’s “serious journalistic endeavor”?

    How do the following comments of the blog’s attorney which presumably “report negative information” or “express negative opinions regarding the actions of people who are elected officials or public figures” enlighten the community, or “make people aware of what's happening in our city”?

    Instead, in a private email, the blog administrator shared misgivings about allowing any response to the blog lawyer: “I'm not sure how letting [the commenter] have the last word with [said lawyer] will serve any purpose.”

    Again, it’s an interesting question whether or not such motivations honor the scope of non-editorializing in Section 230.

    Readers may decide on the wisdom of allowing the following comments (their general impropriety notwithstanding), and perhaps reconsider the supposed heroic virtue of exploiting every given immunity of Section 230.

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  11. Gossips, I hope that you'll allow my very serious comment on this issue posted on July 19th at 4:30 PM.

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  12. 2.

    Thank you, Gossips, for your honesty in allowing me to re-post the following comments.

    To repeat, I was quoting directly from a filmed interview with the subject. I would have no reason to deny it, nor were there any "third parties" involved.

    “John K. Friedman April 4, 2021 at 10:55 AM -

    “What a fucking hypocrite: you repeat the calumnies of others and then claim ‘well, I didn’t say it.’ You’re not a stupid man [using name of commenter]. Just full of shit and antisemitic. And a raging coward.”

    “John K. Frieman April 4, 2021 at 6:46 PM -

    “Again, quoting someone who’s ‘quoting’ a third party. Thirteen these olds [sic] are too young to consent to sex but ok to collaborate with armed murderers? You’re a faux intellectual with the philosophical depth of a true [redacted race-based epithet]. And you remain a dissembling coward and antisemitic [sic] regardless of how many ‘unnamed’ Jewish people wrote you to support your spineless hate.”

    Note well that these were the comments of the same legal counsel to whom readers of TGOR should direct their communications, if any, regarding allegations of libel or defamation.

    And if it matters to anyone, though it should not!, then I’m Jewish on my mother’s side (surname: Lehrer).

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    1. I pretty much never agree with John Friedman, but he was 100% right with his comment that you have so helpfully re-printed.

      In the comments of the post (since removed) from April, you were posting crazy anti-semitic conspiracies about Soros. I told you then, and I'll tell you again now - it's disgusting behavior to call a Holocaust survivor a Nazi.

      If you are threatening Carol with a lawsuit, then you are acting like a huge asshole, and you should stop. You are acting exactly like Donald Trump, who also bemoans the fact that he can't sue for libel when he is called out on being a bigot who promotes insane conspiracy theories.

      If you do proceed with a harassing lawsuit, keep in mind that there can be large fines for frivolous and bad faith lawsuits, which would certainly apply in this case.

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    2. Just to be clear, "unheimlich" is not among the people who have threatened to sue me, although, according to him, he did include me in the incident report he filed with the Hudson Police Department.

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    3. Thanks for clarifying, Carole.

      As for Raoul Duke, who's nothing like his namesake, please see my comment on "ad hominem" below.

      To that, I now hasten to add "straw man arguments after the fact."

      After all, I'd only quoted George Soros's own words. That is all, plus my own questions about his words. The low-brown reaction should be expected at other venues, but at Gossips?

      Doesn't anyone know how to fight fair around here? Guess not. Beware!

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  13. Tim, you are all those things in my opinion, spell check notwithstanding.

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    1. Indulging in ad hominem - attacking a person’s character rather than their argument or position - is among the basest of our instincts.

      Denying someone’s defense after such an attack isn’t much better.

      That's a clever use of my name, though I never gave you leave to address me so, or to unmask me.

      Naturally, other readers will keep mum, but mark well what you've read here today.

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  14. Keep at it, Carole! Your reports and the commentary here are invaluable!

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  15. Love your blog. The soul of hudson

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  16. As someone who has spent most his adult life, as a practicing journalist, under the umbrella of Times v Sullivan, I would love to jump into this debate. Instead, I just want to point out that Times v Sullivan might be up for review: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/us/supreme-court-libel.html

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    1. True, Sullivan's getting creaky, and Section 230 is aching to be amended.

      I was surprised there's no mention here of one of the most important libel cases in American history, which originated in Hudson near the corner of Warren and 2nd Streets. There ought to be a historic marker there commemorating it.

      People v. Croswell:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_v._Croswell

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    2. Also, by the way--please fill in the details--it was a letter to the editor (Albany Times Union?) that led Aaron Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel. We know how that ended.

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    3. Though it's all apocryphal, I heard it was Hamilton's dinner party talk while in Albany defending Croswell that made its way back to the execrable Burr.

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  17. Perhaps the first step toward civility is removing anonymity for those that want to comment.
    Charlie Millar

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    1. This would be a great idea.

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    2. But how does that make sense given the above example?

      Here, the ad hominem incivility was by the self-identified party. In fact, part of the incivility was to expose the name of the anonymous other in combination with incendiary personal accusations.

      I believe this was intended to curb the speech of the anonymous party with which the self-named figure disagreed. Rather than engage in a discussion based *strictly* on direct quotations of the controversial subject, it was the self-named party who’d employed the techniques of "canceling” (see the quoted comments above).

      Moreover, by unmasking the anonymous party (and even repeating the offense in the present thread), the self-named commenter knowingly increases the chances of reprisals based solely on his owns slurs by unknown others with a similar axe to grind.

      In the circumstances your solution not only makes no sense, it showcases the argument for anonymous comments which are identifiable only to the blog administrator.

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    3. I think that someone needs to step away from the keyboard and take a break from Gossips for a while. Jeesh.

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  18. You’re performing an invaluable community service, Carole. I’m glad John has your back. You’re in good hands, indeed.

    What is that old saying? first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they sue you for libel… lol. apologies to Schopenhauer or Robbie Williams, I’m not sure, but I think you’re on the winning path here.

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