We Have to Stop Getting Sued for Libel

Robert Sack sits on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (federal) in New York City and is one of the nation’s leading authorities on libel.

AT LONG LAST, I finally have to say something about this — we have to stop getting sued for libel. By “we” I mean Ulster Publishing, Inc. your hometown, homegrown, locally sourced newspaper chain. We publish all the “Times” newspapers locally — Kingston, New Paltz, Woodstock, Saugerties, and Keators Corners. And of course, the Hudson Valley One website that you are now reading.

We used to be something great. For a while, we were pretty much exemplary. We cared whether what we said was right or wrong. But that got old. And then we got old.

The Ulster Publishing office

And now, it’s getting expensive and time consuming to keep answering these libel and defamation lawsuits.

So far, libel claims against us the past few years have come to nearly $11 million. Two cases are pending, we had one pretrial settlement and one very close call. Our insurance only covers up to $1 million. This is really bad. 

No local newspaper should be sued for libel, ever.

A reporter or editor has to be a real jackass to publish something that they know is wrong. By “jackass” I mean something like the television show, where the guy volunteers to test out pepper spray, a stun gun, a taser, and a.38 caliber gun with a bulletproof vest. 

Yes, we are a bunch of knuckleheads who have a very high tolerance for stupidity and pain, but I’m now saying uncle. Uncle! Uncle Fester! Uncle Floyd! Uncle Willie! Uncle Janet! Even my pervy old Uncle Pete will do. ANYBODY!!!!!

Libel law is complicated, but avoiding libel is something you could explain to a child in about five minutes. 

It’s really simple. What a newspaper prints has to be true, which means documented and provable. And then if something is wrong, the newspaper has to print a correction immediately. (I admit, we hate printing corrections, especially for things like calling someone a “ninny.”)

This goes for both articles and advertisements. Reporters are also responsible for what they say to their sources and should not be in the business of spreading gossip. That is known as slander. I just can’t help myself sometimes. I just sit here all day, getting more and more pissed off thinking I’m going to die in this chair in this horrid office writing this same boring shit till I’m 75 years old.

Also, we’re not supposed to use anonymous sources, especially if we don’t know who they are.

I don’t know how we keep screwing the pooch on this one, but it’s getting exhausting.

Geddy Images.

The discovery requests. The interrogatories. The depositions. The hassles with our insurance company. The phone calls from readers and advertisers. That dirty mangy dog who keeps writing satires making fun of us. What an asshole! There are all kinds of consequences. We just have to stop getting sued.

So stop suing us. 

Only you, the reader, have the power to do that. If we print something shitty about you, take it like a man. Chin up. Ok, if we decide to hold you down and punch you, you must agree that’s a fair fight. If we don’t call you for a comment before going to press with an article about you or your business, that’s your issue, not ours.

I know that part of the problem is that my boss doesn’t care about getting sued. He’s a real mutant. He cares about getting sued no more than some shadowy figure from the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks. Judges? Juries? Lawyers? Funerals? He thinks they’re all a joke. 

Also, we rely a little too heavily on the “public figure defense.” That’s kind of horse shit in an area where one out of five people has a record contract, and many other notables hang out. The thinking goes, if you’re a public figure and we mess up your life, you will have a harder time proving intent because you will have to establish that we have “actual malice.” 

That’s exactly what we have. Actual malice. Contempt for the human race. No sense of community other than selling advertisements. We are a bunch of trolls who think we’re the greatest goddamned thing since William Randolph Hearst.

So please, stop suing us. And would someone do us a favor and send a copy of the Associated Press Style Guide and Libel Manual? It’s been a long time since J-school and we could use a refresher.


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