I’ve spent a lot of time–and pixels–on what sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem: how do we stop media outlets from blatant political lying– out-and-out propaganda– without doing irreparable harm to the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment?
The problem is everywhere.
One recent example: a site called Big League Politics reported that Nancy Pelosi purchased a $25 million-dollar oceanfront mansion on Jupiter Island “an elite community with the distinction of its residents possessing the highest per capita income of any municipality in the United States.” Rightwing sites eagerly circulated the report, which actual reporters found to be demonstrably, patently false.
What to do? I’m beginning to think the answer is “sue their socks off!”
Two Georgia election workers who were the targets of a right-wing campaign that falsely claimed they manipulated ballots filed a defamation lawsuit on Thursday against one of the nation’s leading sources of pro-Trump misinformation.
The suit against the right-wing conspiratorial website The Gateway Pundit was filed by Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, both of whom processed ballots in Atlanta during the 2020 election for the Fulton County elections board. It follows a series of defamation claims filed by elections equipment operators against conservative television operators such as Fox News, Newsmax and One America News.
The allegations had been thoroughly investigated and found to be false, but that didn’t stop the pro-Trump disinformation campaign.The women received death threats and unending harassment from phone calls and text messages. Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, both of whom are Black, were also subjected to racial slurs.
A far more high-profile series of lawsuits has been filed by manufacturers of election technology. Dominion Voting Systems has filed defamation lawsuits against Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani and against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. A federal judge recently ruled that those lawsuits can proceed. The court gave short shrift to claims that the defendants didn’t defame Dominion with their discredited allegations that the company was involved in election fraud that delivered the presidential election to Joe Biden.
Powell and Lindell claimed during a June hearing they could not be sued for defamation because they stood by their fraud claims and Dominion could not prove they made the allegations with “actual malice” knowing that they were false.
The judge noted that the claims were sufficiently fanciful that they demonstrated either knowing falsity or “reckless disregard for the truth”and said “a reasonable juror could conclude” Lindell’s claims of a “vast international conspiracy that is ignored by the government but proven by a spreadsheet on an internet blog is so inherently improbable that only a reckless man would believe it.”
The complaint filed by the two women suing The Gateway Pundit and other right-wing outlets did not specify a dollar amount that would compensate them, but Dominion is asking for billions of dollars in damages. In addition to the defendants listed above, it has also sued Fox News, Newsmax, One America News and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne.
Smartmatic, another election machine provider, has filed several suits as well.
The First Amendment protects citizens against government censorship. It does not protect purveyors of out-and-out lies from lawsuits charging libel or slander. And those lawsuits can be effective, as the New York Times reported in February.
In just a few weeks, lawsuits and legal threats from a pair of obscure election technology companies have achieved what years of advertising boycotts, public pressure campaigns and liberal outrage could not: curbing the flow of misinformation in right-wing media.
Fox Business canceled its highest rated show, “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” on Friday after its host was sued as part of a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit. On Tuesday, the pro-Trump cable channel Newsmax cut off a guest’s rant about rigged voting machines. Fox News, which seldom bows to critics, has run fact-checking segments to debunk its own anchors’ false claims about electoral fraud.
These lawsuits hit propagandists where it counts–in their pocketbooks. Fox News had to pay millions last year to the family of a murdered Democratic National Committee staff member that Fox hosts had falsely accused of leaking emails to WikiLeaks.
Can the tactic be abused? Absolutely–just look at Donald Trump, who routinely sued anyone who reported on him negatively. Defending against even spurious claims can be expensive; I don’t want to minimize the downside.
That said, I agree with Roberta Kaplan.
This shouldn’t be the way to govern speech in our country,” Ms. Kaplan said. “It’s not an efficient or productive way to promote truth-telling or quality journalistic standards through litigating in court. But I think it’s gotten to the point where the problem is so bad right now there’s virtually no other way to do it.”
Sue the liars.