Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Libel Law, Part Two

We have seen that prosecuting such a case takes a tremendous toll on a plaintiff, regardless of the outcome. You are giving the defendant a chance to prove that the allegations against you are correct, and thus those allegations will receive far more publicity than they had enjoyed originally. You therefore better be darn sure you are in the right.

In light of all this, it seems inconceivable that anyone would ever prosecute such a case, knowing that the allegations were correct. And yet, examples of this are present. In 1895 Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, the Marquess having accused Wilde of being a sodomite. As the defendant's part of the case was getting started, his counsel was prepared to present a parade of young men with whom Wilde had been friendly. Wilde's counsel accordingly dismissed the case.

But this was not the end of it. The information the counsel for the Marquess had put together was forwarded to the authorities, and Wilde was arrested for sodomy! His first trial ended in a hung jury, but on retrial he was convicted and served two years in prison.

Next we have the Alger Hiss case. Hiss was accused by one Whittaker Chambers of having been a Communist. Hiss denied this, and challenged Chambers to repeat his allegations away from the protected confines of the house unamerican activities committee room. Chambers did so, on "Meet the Press", and Hiss immediately sued for libel.

In order to get a handle on this matter, it is important to keep the timeline in mind. All of the above events happened in August of 1948. On October 15th, the Justice Dept. completed its investigation and determined no charges were warranted. However, in November pre-trial discovery in the libel case revealed more documentation, which was turned over the the Justice Department.

On December 1st, Congressman Richard Nixon (who had been responsible for pursuing the Chambers information in the first place), gets re-interested in the case and meets with Chambers at the latter's farm. HUAC and a grand jury both hear testimony, and on Dec. 15th the grand jury indicts Hiss on two counts of perjury, alleging that he lied when he said he didn't see Chambers after January 1, 1937 and when he said he never turned over any documents to Chambers. Hiss was convicted after his second trial, the first having hung 8-4 for conviction, and he served 44 months in prison.

Our third example is General William Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam. He took exception to a 1982 documentary by CBS News, entitled "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. the title pretty much explains what Westmoreland found objectionable, which was that the top brass in Vietnam was being accused of misrepresenting the enemy troop strengths, especially as it relates to the 1968 Tet offensive. Per Wikipedia, "
Westmoreland charged that the investigators asked biased and slanted questions, selectively edited interviews (for example, giving a two-minute excerpt of a 90-minute interview and portraying that selection as representative), and selectively chose persons to interview supportive of CBS's point of view. He also charged CBS with editing interview tapes dishonestly and taking statements out of context. Westmoreland charged CBS with reckless misstatements of evidence and contended these distortions indicated malice."

After four months of trial, Westmoreland abruptly dismissed the case. As I recall, his chief deputy had testified that the CBS allegations were essentially true, and numbers *were* fudged for political reasons. Thus, Westoreland accomplished nothing by his suit; but more than that, he gave way more publicity to the CBS allegations than would have been the case had he left well enough alone.

What is the common thread here among the three cases? I think the common characteristic among all three of these ill-fated plaintiffs is arrogance. None of them could get past their own arrogance and false pride (hubris) to view their situations with any objectivity. I'm sure their attorneys pressed each one hard before undertaking the suit; we know from accounts that Wilde's attorneys certainly did. Wilde assured his attorneys that there was absolutely no basis for the allegations, and if you read the way he answered questions on the stand, his arrogance comes through clearly.

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