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Fifth Circuit Revives Libel Case Over NY Times Slavery Quote

The Fifth Circuit reinstated a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times on Tuesday, ruling in favor of a Loyola University economics professor who claims the newspaper inaccurately reported that he thought slavery was “not so bad.”

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The Fifth Circuit reinstated a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times on Tuesday, ruling in favor of a Loyola University economics professor who claims the newspaper inaccurately reported that he thought slavery was “not so bad.”

The New York Times conducted an interview with professor Walter Block in 2014, and he took issue with how the newspaper and reporters Sam Tanenhaus and Jim Rutenberg portrayed him in a story about U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s potential 2016 presidential run, according to court records.

The Times sought to get Block's perspective regarding the Kentucky Republican’s "ties with libertarian thinkers," of which Block included himself.

However, Block accused the newspaper of attributing racist views to libertarian scholars.

The professor claims the story suggested that he "did not object to chattel slavery" and implied he was racist by stating, “Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who described slavery as ‘not so bad,’ is also highly critical of the Civil Rights Act.”

He says his full statement to the newspaper reads: “Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.”

Block claims the Times took his quotes out of context and that his statements actually highlighted the importance of free association and condemned slavery because it was involuntary.

A federal judge in Eastern Louisiana granted the Times' motion to strike Block's lawsuit in April 2015, noting that the article was about the political ideology of libertarianism.

“Although Block claims in the original complaint that the statements about him and quoted are untrue, he acknowledges having made them, and thus cannot establish the most important element, falsity, which in turn precludes him from establishing malice,” U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle wrote at the time.

Block challenge the district court’s ruling on appeal, arguing that “there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the NYT distorted the meaning of his statements by omitting crucial context,” the Fifth Circuit ruling states.

The professor says the story diminished his standing as a public figure and the article is defamatory per se because communicating that someone views chattel slavery as “not so bad” has a natural tendency to hurt their reputation.

Block also claimed that he received physical threats after the article was published. He included a police report in the case record indicating that he was threatened by two young men who believed he had “said slavery was okay,” the ruling states.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Block’s complaint.

“The NYT does not dispute that describing someone as believing that chattel slavery is ‘not so bad’ has a natural tendency to harm that person’s reputation. Instead, it argues that the article made no such accusation. Likewise, the district court determined that the article did not have a defamatory meaning because, in light of the quote that noted Block’s objection to coercion without mentioning him by name, the article ‘does not brand Block as someone who considers slavery not so bad,’” the unsigned opinion states.

The ruling continues, “However, as explained above, the unattributed quotation does not eliminate the fact issue as to whether a reasonable reader would understand the article to describe Block as having accepted chattel slavery. Because it is undisputed that such a description of Block would be defamatory, dismissal for failure to create a genuine fact issue as to whether the article had a defamatory meaning was premature.”

The panel was made up of U.S. Circuit Judges Jerry Smith, Jennifer Elrod and Catharina Haynes, who remanded the case back to the lower court.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for the New York Times, said in a statement that the newspaper was "disappointed in the court's ruling but remain convinced that our story was accurate and we will proceed to prove our case before the district court."

Block did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

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