A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Knoxnews.com reports:

Unsuccessful state House candidate Roger Byrge is suing Republican Rep. Stacey Campfield for libel.

Byrge, a Democrat who lost his East Tennessee race by fewer than 400 votes, filed the $750,000 lawsuit against Campfield in Jacksboro this week. The lawsuit alleges that Campfield, of Knoxville, falsely wrote on his blog that Byrge had been arrested several times on drug charges. 
Campfield said he has not seen the lawsuit. He said he was only repeating what he had heard about Byrge, and that he was not presenting it as a fact.

An AP report fleshes out the matter of this “not quite a fact” defense some more:

In the Oct. 12 blog post, Campfield said more attention needed to be paid to the race for the open seat in House District 36.

“Word is a … mail piece has gone out exposing Byrge’s multiple separate drug arrests,” Campfield wrote on the blog. “Including arrests for possession and drug dealing. (I hear the mug shots are gold).”

The parts of the post mentioning Byrge are no longer on Campfield’s blog, but a printout of the original text is filed as an exhibit in the lawsuit.

Campfield said Thursday that he was only repeating what he had heard from others.

“I don’t think it ever presents anything as fact,” he said. “I know a little bit about the First Amendment, and I just don’t see him having a basis for damages.”

It would appear that Campfield does know a very little bit about the First Amendment, and even less about the law of defamation. The recent Ohio Supreme Court case of Jackson v. Ohio addresses this narrow question succinctly. Ohio law is not particularly different from the law of most states in this regard, constrained as the states are by the high standard of U.S. Supreme Court decisions applying the First Amendment to such cases (internal quotations and citations omitted). Indeed this decision is based almost entirely on U.S. Supreme Court precedent:

In a qualified privilege case, actual malice is defined as acting with knowledge that the statements are false or acting with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. The phrase “reckless disregard” applies when a publisher of defamatory statements acts with a high degree of awareness of their probable falsity, or when the publisher in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. . . .

[In Jackson v. Ohio, t]he report stated that the source of the rumor was unreliable and a “liar” and “scam artist.” The report and the 969 pages of exhibits in the report’s appendix give the appearance of thoroughness. According to Jackson, however, Rice did not interview him before submitting the report to the mayor. Jackson also asserts in an affidavit that Rice did not ask him about Jones’s allegation or inquire of anyone other than Jones about the [allegedly defamatory] allegation. . . .

Construing the evidence most strongly in Jackson’s favor, as we must when reviewing a summary judgment motion, we conclude that the evidence could support a determination that Rice had a “high degree of awareness of [the statement’s] probable falsity,” or that Rice “entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.” Accordingly, the trial court improperly entered summary judgment [for defendant] in this case, and we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand this case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

Lesson one: Publishing rumors of dubious veracity, and even identifying them as rumors, does not exempt a publisher (blogger or otherwise) from responsibility for their factual content.

Lesson two: Most people really do know, at best, “a little bit” about the First Amendment, and that little bit is probably not enough.

Ron Coleman

I write this blog.

One Reply to “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”

  1. Isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black? I’ve heard that cases such as this are absolutely a waste of time since public officials are constantly barbed and ridiculed publicly. I believe Byrge was sued for a negative commercial he did on the winning opponent and it was changed after the dems promised it would be pulled.

    Look at all the tabloids–how do you think they get away with hashing out all that propaganda? If the Hollywood elite can adapt to this, certainly a defeated candidate can.

    Kind of interesting, don’t you think?

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