DECEMBER 2018 - Joe Arpaio and Libel Law
By: Samantha Collins
In 2018, Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff, filed a $300 million libel lawsuit against CNN, HuffPost, and Rolling Stone Magazine, all of whom have been involved in several other libel cases. According to The Hill, Arpaio argued that CNN, HuffPost, and Rolling Stone incorrectly referred to him as a felon (Campisi, 2019). He also argued that HuffPost incorrectly stated that he went to prison, according to The Washington Times (Dinan, 2019). In 2017, Arpaio was convicted of a misdemeanor criminal contempt of court, “for disobeying a federal judge’s order on detaining people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally,” (Campisi, 2019). After being convicted, President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio (Dinan, 2019). Arpaio also argued that these reports tarnished his distinguished career (Campisi, 2019). According to The Hollywood Reporter, on Oct. 31, 2019, Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that Arpaio was unable to prove the media outlets acted with actual malice, resulting in him losing the case (Gardner, 2019). Arpaio’s case added to the ongoing discussion of whether libel law should be changed, and if it should still be followed.
Libel law has been criticized for being partially unfair to defendants because of its design and the requirement that defendants must prove actual malice. David Anderson (1991) argues in his academic journal, Is Libel Law Worth Reforming?, that this is extremely difficult to do because the defendant has to prove that the statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,” (p. 493). Anderson also argues that libel law and the way it protects journalists and the media, gives them the incentive to commit libel (Anderson, 1991, p. 488). “Libel law continues to exact a price from speech. The constitutional protections are designed to, and often do, encourage the media to defame,” Anderson (1991) wrote (p. 488).
In his academic journal, Reviving The Lost Tort of Defamation: A Proposal to Stem The Flow of Fake News, Randall Nice (2019) argues that libel law, while it protects journalists and the media, simultaneously harms the public (p. 223). “Current defamation law offers substantial protection for speech but provides little protection for the reputation of public officials,” Nice wrote (Nice, 2019, p. 223).
It can be hard to file and win libel lawsuits against news organizations; however, it is important to have a law in place that protects news organizations from being sued by anyone who claims they are victims of libel. Libel law allows news organizations’ credibility to rely on truth and for them to be held responsible for what they say. Anderson (1991) argues that if libel law did not exist, the press’s credibility would, “be at the mercy of the least scrupulous among it, and public discourse would have no necessary anchor in truth,” (p. 490)
According to CNBC, figures such as President Donald Trump have suggested that the Supreme Court change libel law to make it easier for defendants to sue news organizations (Wilkie 2018). To change libel law, the courts would have to either change the U.S. Constitution or reinterpret the law, which would have to result from dissent; however, that doesn’t seem to be present, according to ABC News (Pearle & Keneally, 2017). In Judge Lamberth’s statement on Arpaio’s case, he states his opinion on libel law and whether it should be followed, saying, “[T]he courts ultimately must vigorously protect the First Amendment rights of journalists and the press to issue their reports unless there is some evidence of actual malice attributable to them,” (Castle, 2019).
Libel cases, such as Arpaio’s, continue to lead scholars, the public, the media, and others to discuss libel law further and whether it’s fair for journalists to have the right to freely report on issues that the public should know about, even if their reports contain mistakes.