The New York Times won’t be sued for libel over its article quoting a Loyola professor saying slavery was “not so bad,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported.
The professor, Walter Block, said the Times took his comments “out of context” and suggested he “is a racist, a supporter of slavery, and/or against the Civil Rights Act … solely because of racial prejudices,” the judge’s ruling stated.
This is another example of how, in a defamation action, the speaker gets to define his own words.
It sometimes comes up in my practice that I get a call from a potential client who wants to sue for defamation because someone referred to him as a “stalker”. The caller has looked up the criminal code section that defines “stalker”, and argues that he does not meet the elements, making the accusation false.
That analysis would only be true if the alleged defamer said or wrote, “Joe is a stalker as defined by the criminal code.” But if the defamer merely stated, “Joe is a stalker,” then what he meant by that is crucial. Stated another way, Joe does not get to define the term used by the defamer, unless that definition is reasonable.
This case presented that issue, with an additional layer. Here, a college professor was talking about slavery, and from a specific context, said it was “not so bad.” The reporter from the New York Times who reported on the comment, said that the professor had stated that slavery was “not so bad”, but really didn’t provide the context.
The professor sued for defamation, stating the newspaper article took him out of context; that he didn’t really mean to say that slavery was not so bad.
But here’s the thing, Professor. We don’t have to agree with your interpretation. I get that in your mind, you were attempting to make the point that from an external viewpoint, slaves were fed and clothed, and even got to sing in the fields as you put it, in order to make the point that what made slavery so horrific was its involuntary versus voluntary nature. But the author is free to decide that even in that context, your comment exhibits extreme insensitivity.
The NYT brought an anti-SLAPP motion on that basis, and the trial judge agreed and dismissed the action. “The Court finds that the references made to Block are not capable of defamatory meaning, nor do they place him in a false light,” the judge wrote.