Nancy Grace libel case will hinge on whether she knew she was wrong

CNN’s Nancy Grace has been sued for defamation by Michael Skakel, a Kennedy relative who’s spent more than a dozen years in prison for murder. Here’s the New York Times article for full background, but suffice it to say that Grace and one of her guests accused Skakel of being tied to the crime with DNA evidence. No such evidence was ever entered in court proceedings so it’s unclear where they got this information.

In order to win a libel case, the plaintiff must prove that the defamatory information was false, disseminated and caused harm. In addition, public figures must prove “actual malice,” that the information was known to be untrue. Private figures need only prove that the journalists acted with negligence of some kind. It’s unclear whether Skakel will be treated as a public or private figure but previous cases have held that people charged with crimes become limited-purpose public figures.

If a public figure, Skakel would need to prove that Grace and her guest knew the DNA evidence was never present and yet said that it was anyway. CNN hasn’t released any details about where Grace got the information but during the discovery process, she will definitely be asked under oath to explain her sourcing. If a private figure, Skakel would need to only prove the Grace and her guest didn’t follow normal newsroom procedures to verify the DNA evidence information.

Either way, Skakel looks to have a good case since the DNA information appears to be definitely untrue.

Another defense will regard Skakel’s tarnished reputation. Some libel cases have been won when the defense proved the plaintiff’s reputation was so bad that it couldn’t be damaged any further. Given that Skakel is out of prison and receiving a new trial, Grace and her co-defendant’s probably won’t be able to make that defense stick.

It’s an interesting case — one that will be fun to follow, as long CNN’s corporate bosses don’t decide to cut their losses and settle.

By | January 2nd, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Arab defamation laws — major impediment to good journalism in Middle East

Libel and slander laws in the Middle East dramatically hinder good local journalism in the region. Such laws are perhaps second only to “insulting the ruler” charges in their ability squelch freedom of the press and speech. A recent incident in the United Arab Emirates demonstrates their devastating effect.

I wrote an article for Al Monitor about the case of a man who was arrested for recording a video of an Emirati man beating an Indian driver.

However, police also arrested the Indian man who recorded and uploaded the incident. The arrest came after the Emirati man’s family filed a complaint with police alleging an invasion of privacy as well as defamation. According to local reports, the man who videoed the incident actually faces more jail time than the Emirati attacker.

Defamation in the UAE — as well as the entire Arab world — differs from international legal norms in several substantive respects. First, it’s a criminal charge rather than a civil legal issue (jail time versus a financial settlement.) More importantly, truth is not a defense against defamation in the Arab world.

Such an approach has a crushing effect on anyone wishing to record a crime or journalists working to uncover corruption. The approach allows anyone behaving badly to win a defamation charge by simply showing that a true depiction of his actions damaged his reputation.

International legal norms hold that truth is an automatic defense against defamation charges. The approach ensures that the public benefits from the exposition of defamatory behavior. No one should be allowed to protect a reputation that they do not deserve.

I’ll be speaking more about this subject in Washington, DC, this weekend at the annual Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication conference. Will post the slides for the presentation soon.

For more details on Arab defamation laws and other impediments to good Arab journalism, check out my Jadaliyya article, “Despite Arab Uprisings, Press Freedom Still Elusive.”

By | August 5th, 2013|Uncategorized|0 Comments