Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is Libel Law Dead or Alive?

John Koblin has a fascinating piece in The New York Observer, The End of Libel? He quotes well-known-media-lawyer after well-known-media-lawyer saying that no one is bringing libel lawsuits anymore. The libel lawyer for Time Inc., Robin Bierstedt, says she is retiring because there are "no more lawsuits." George Freeman, VP and assistant GC at the New York Times, says that, for the first time in his 29 years there, there are no active domestic libel suits. The dean of media lawyers, Floyd Abrams, says he knows of no litigators "who are doing a lot in this area."

If I didn't know which side they were on, I would almost suspect a wisp of nostalgia in their comments, as if an abundance of libel lawsuits represented the good old days.

Why the diminishing number of libel cases? The article attributes it to the glut of information made available via the Internet, the ability of those who feel wronged to disseminate their viewpoints, and the willingness of publications to correct their mistakes.

I am not qualified to quibble with the likes of George Freeman and Floyd Abrams about anything having to do with media law. But I wonder whether libel is dead or merely being redirected towards a different type of publisher. Even if it is true that libel actions against newspapers are dropping, there seems to be an increasing trend to threaten libel actions against bloggers and other types of online publishers and commentators. Perhaps the reason many big-name lawyers are not seeing these cases is that these small-time bloggers can't afford to hire them.

And on the subject of the death of libel, I would love to hear what Howard M. Cooper would have to say. Cooper is the lawyer who has made a national name for himself as the go-to advocate in libel matters, particularly when the subject of the alleged libel is a judge. As The Boston Globe recently said, "Get me Howard Cooper" has become the rallying cry for judges from the Virgin Islands to New Hampshire who feel they have been libeled by media outlets.

If libel lawsuits are down for some, libel business is clearly on the upswing up for Cooper, and not just on behalf of judges. Earlier this year, he represented Tom Scholz of the band Boston in a libel matter.

My sense is -- to paraphrase Mark Twain -- that reports of the death of libel are greatly exaggerated.

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