Aug. 31 2016 11:02 AM

Let court of public opinion, not the courts, rule

I remember my shock the first time I read a newspaper editorial attacking the paper’s own columnist. The columnist was Joe McGinniss, who went onto a successful career as a nonfiction book writer. The editorial page was that of The Philadelphia Inquirer, owned by the indomitable Walter Annenberg, later to be President Nixon’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.

What’s this got to do with you? Well, I’m a newspaper publisher (although at times domitable) who is about to disagree with my paper’s columnist.

Last week in this space, Mickey Hirten waxed favorably on a jury’s decision to punish the website Gawker’s publication of Hulk Hogan’s sex tapes. Had Mickey limited himself to criticizing Gawker’s bad taste, I’d agree with him. But alas, he went on to defend libel law and criticize the move away from it on the Internet.

Libel is essentially written or printed false information that damages a person’s reputation. A complicated body of laws has grown up around it, despite the First Amendment prohibition that Congress shall make no law at all abridging freedom of speech. I’m not a free-speech absolutist (I’d rather not get trampled because somebody thinks it would be hilarious to shout fire in a crowded theater), but I am against libel law. Period.

I speak from experience on both sides of libel. City Pulse has been sued, and I have considered suing for libel after a malicious personal attack.

First, being sued. In 2009, we called a local businessman the county’s second biggest property tax delinquent. He contended he wasn’t the delinquent — his limited liability company, or LLC, was.

I told the plaintiff he would lose because his lawyer was not a specialist in the arcane field of media law. He ignored me and, at a cost of $300 an hour, treated his attorney to an expensive education. Now, my attorney didn’t know much more, but I did, from decades of experience running newsrooms. And so did my secret weapon, a First Amendment attorney from Detroit, who was advising my attorney. (My local attorney, Stuart Shafer, didn’t get the credit due him in a post-suit story in City Pulse, so here at last is an official thank you for a job well done.)

City Pulse “won” because we proved there was no substantial difference in this case between the man and the LLC.

I say “won” because my legal fees were substantial. I am sure many publishers would have shied away from such a story for just that reason. I have to wonder how many other stories go unpublished because of the chill factor.

No libel law, no chill factor.

Let’s flip the coin. A few years back, we angered a real nut job with a story he didn’t like. Next thing I knew, my neighborhood was plastered with fliers featuring my picture and declaring me a sex offender. And later a self-published book appeared on Amazon called “Without Integrity, Ethics or Pride: The True Story of how Berl Schwartz and his Lansing City Pulse Publication Undermined an Entire City for Greed, Profit and Revenge.” It, too, declared me a sex offender.

I called Amazon and asked for it to be taken down because the book was libelous. I was told my only recourse was to sue the author. Having gone through a suit, I didn’t want the angst or expense again. So, I just waited it out. And it went away. I never heard another word about it.

Which got me thinking.

He got to say what he wanted. I certainly could have but chose not to. The public could have taken it from there, judging City Pulse’s and my credibility against his.

Yes, but I own a newspaper. What’s the average person to do?

That’s where the Internet comes in. In his column, my colleague knocks the Communications Decency Act for protecting websites from libel committed by their users. That’s very different from print, where you cannot repeat a libel without liability.

I say we need to expand the Communications Decency Act to give print the same protection — but I go further: We should just get rid of libel laws altogether.

Then the Internet can truly level the playing field. Have a gripe? Post it. Spend a few bucks and create your own website. Take more time and self-publish a book and sell it on Amazon, which will apparently sell anything. In the Gawker case, the suit was funded by billionaire capitalist Peter Thiel. He certainly didn’t need libel law to make his point. But by going the legal route, his side ended winning an unconscionable $115 million verdict against Gawker — enough to put it out of business. Is that chilling enough for you?

Call me a free-speech capitalist. I say let the public decide. “Give light and the people will find their own way,” as the motto of one of my former employers, Scripps Howard Newspapers, put it. Or as Jefferson said, “The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies.”