I had a grade-school thought last week — “he who smelt it dealt it” —after reading The New York Times coverage of a concurring opinion by a lone Supreme Court justice. I assume this was part of its ongoing 24-7 full coverage of rulings that have no effect on anyone.
Or it may be that the Times can’t help but notice anyone criticizing a ruling that has its name on it — i.e. New York Times v. Sullivan. If there were a Policzer v. Sullivan, I’d be pretty annoyed with anyone talking about overruling it too.
The article contained this sentence: “Justice Thomas’s statement came in the wake of complaints from President Trump that libel laws make it too hard for public officials to win libel suits.”
OK, I know he’s said this sort of thing before but it’s still a little startling — the guy who smells it is constantly dealing it. Imagine all the libel suits against Donald Trump there would be if libel standards were loosened. Hardly a day would go by ...
Still, it’s not unreasonable to reconsider the issue. The Constitution isn’t all that specific about those free speech and press things, and think about all the people you’d enjoy suing. I know some Supreme Court justices might have a few defendants in mind.
The problem with ramping up libel laws — aside from stifling reporting — is the bully factor. People with large wallets and lawyers on retainer will control debate. I bet you can come up with a smelly example of someone who’s done that sort of thing.
So I say let’s do the reasonable, conservative, strict constructionist thing and say freedom of speech and press are freedom of speech and press: All libel laws are unconstitutional. It would be just like all weapon ownership is legal because we want well-regulated militias. (I realize there’s something wrong with that logic, but it’s the law of the land.)
I know — you’re aghast. You never thought I’d ever write anything reasonable or conservative. There’s also the problem of vast amounts of false information and bad manners flooding our media. No, wait, that’s already happening, but it could get a lot worse.
So what do we do?
The obvious answer is to not believe anything we see or read, thereby leaving us to create our own alternate realities. That’s a tempting solution that many of us have already put into practice, but it’s probably not useful for public health or prevention of the coming death of the planet. We need to agree on some version of reality.
The answer could lie in one of our greatest worries — advancing technology that threatens to take all our jobs. We can either starve to death because none of us will have any money or we can program the robots to plug us into the Matrix. You get a blue pill if you’re a Democrat and a red pill if you’re a Republican and tune in to your preferred version of reality. The robots who are manipulating the media clearly have already prepped us for these choices.
Or we could keep plugging along the way we have been and hope our preferred version of democracy wins out. Things could be worse.
Change of venue. You can find solutions to intractable problems in unexpected places. For example, there was this in a footnote of an Indiana Court of Appeals ruling last week: “We heard oral argument in this case on January 28, 2019, at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, hosted by the Area 31 Career Center. We would like to thank the faculty, staff, and students of Ben Davis and Area 31 for their hospitality and counsel for the high quality of their oral and written advocacy.”
Why pay rent or waste public funds on court buildings when you can take your show on the road? It’s brilliant! The court gets a place to do some work and the audience is educated and/or entertained.
The court can make the rounds at schools, churches, movie theaters and gymnasiums. It could do bar mitzvahs and weddings. If your court is having space problems, this is the answer.
In case you’re wondering, this particular high school drama featured a plaintiff who got hit by a ram while tending to a goat. The kids had to have loved this.
Subscribe to our columns
Want new op-eds sent directly to your inbox? Subscribe below!