July 14, 2021
Libel litigations loses; publishers’ precarious prerogative protected
by Mike Lindgren
We here at John Street don’t tend to pay super-close attention to courts and laws and the like—can you spell boooooring?—but news of a recent Supreme Court decision did penetrate our heat-addled torpor long enough to make … an impression.
According to a number of our sources, last week the Supreme Court declined to review Berisha v. Lawson, a notorious case where Shkelzen Berisha, the son of an Albanian politician, attempted to sue a writer named Guy Lawson for libel, claiming that Lawson unfairly portrayed him as a criminal mobster. Berisha’s old man had last month been publicly censored by the US State Department “due to his involvement in significant corruption,” so, I don’t know, my dude, maybe take the L and move on? Anyways, according to the New York Times, the Court declined to pursue the lawsuit, citing as precedent the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, widely considered the cornerstone of free speech here in the United States.
So, what does this have to do with us? with books? with summertime in Brooklyn? Err … (sounds of typing, scanning articles frantically …) ah, yes. According to “the Gray Lady,” the dissents written by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas have an ominous ring to them since they suggest a propensity for weakening, rather than strengthening, the laws that protect book publishers like this one from frivolous accusations by butt-hurt third-tier politicians and the like.
Somewhat confusingly, both Gorsuch and Thomas cited the state of “the modern news media landscape,” by which one assumes they mean the Internet, as context for their decisions. Wouldn’t the lawless-frontier quality of the Internet be a reason for more, rather than less, protection of free speech?
In a caustic Washington Post column, media reporter Erik Wemple seemed to suggest that Gorsuch, in particular, was a mite … confused. As for Thomas, apparently his concern over the PizzaGate scandal of 2016, often seen as a harbinger of the rise of digital conspiracy networks like QAnon, was a motivating factor in his dissent … because … well, just because!
You can read the actual decision here and consult commentary on the official Supreme Court blog. Haha, we know you are not going to do that! But seriously—the Supreme Court has a blog?
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.