Media Law & Ethics
1. Regarding NY Times v. Sullivan:
a. In what ways did the Court’s decision change libel law in the U.S.?
b. What were the reasons that Justice Brennan said the verdict had to be overturned?
c. What questions concerning libel did the Sullivan decision leave unanswered?
d. Briefly explain why you support the majority opinion, the “absolutist” concurring opinions, or believe the case was wrongly decided.
2. Identify options available to a judge to protect a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. (Don’t just list the options; let me know you understand what they are.) Cite examples (i.e. case names) to support your opinion about whether the “mechanisms” suggested by the Supreme Court in Sheppard v. Maxwell adequately protect the defendant’s presumption of innocence.
3. The 1st Amendment says “Congress shall make no law abridging…freedom of speech or of the press,” but the absolutists’ position has never been dominant and exceptions have been carved out. Give examples of types of speech that is unprotected.
4. What analysis must a judge undertake and what findings must the court make before restricting access to a criminal proceeding in light of Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart?
5. You are the managing editor of The Daily Constitutional. Your military affairs reporter, “Skip” deFacks, brings you a stack of documents marked “top secret” that he received from two Pentagon defense analysts, Des Gruntled and Ally Enated, whom deFacks has used as background sources on previous stories.
The documents reveal an imminent CIA-backed plan to destabilize the Latin American nation of Estefan, a leftist regime that is hostile to U.S. economic interests. The plan involves an invasion of Estefan by insurgent expatriate Estefanians armed by the CIA that, if successful, would install a military regime to run the country until democratic elections could be held. The documents reveal the presence of CIA agents in Estefan and identify Estefanian military officers sympathetic to the invasion, including General Aguillera.
The invasion, dubbed “Operation Glorious Estefan,” is scheduled to occur in two weeks. American foreign policy toward Estefan is subject to contentious debate in Congress along party lines. Key White House advisors favor toppling the leftist regime, which they claim oppresses its citizens, but the documents are silent concerning whether the president has approved the invasion. 2
a. Should the Daily Constitutional run the story? Why or why not? [Even if “no,” you must answer parts b-d.]
b. Would you contact the CIA Director for comment before the story ran?
c. To what legal liability, if any, are you and the newspaper exposed if you run the story?
d. What would the outcome be if the government tried to stop publication (cite cases to support your answer)?
6. A special Best Young Fiction Writers’ issues of Adolescent Angst magazine featured a short story entitled “Harlette,” written by Emma Wyatt-Trache. Adolescent Angst is published by the Uber-Berring Worldwide News media conglomerate.
The story, set in the small town of Near, Miss., is a first-person account of the conflict between the unnamed narrator and her high-school nemesis, Harlette. Harlette is described as a raven-haired, tight blue-jeaned, heavily made-up product of a broken home who lived on the other side of town and bore a grudge toward the narrator.
The story’s climax involves an after-school fight between Harlette and the narrator.
Leading up to the fight, the narrator recounts an incident a month earlier:
Harlette was at a bonfire with two tattooed bikers who nobody knew. The three of them were drinking tequila from the bottle. Who knows what guys like that made Harlette do? Next day, Harlette came to school with a bruise on her cheek. Bobbie-Jo Duke stared at her too long and Harlette slammed Bobbie-Jo against the wall and slapped her in the face. Later that day, as Harlette was shouting in the hall like always, I remembered what a slut she was and decided never to pity her again.
The story ends with the mousy narrator defeating Harlette in a fight. A footnote following the story identities the author as a Mississippi native.
Lorelei Zoffin, an unemployed manicurist from Junior, Miss., sues Wyatt-Trache, Adolescent Angst and Uber-Berring Worldwide News for defamation. According to Zoffin, the magazine story called her a “slut,” and implied she was an unchaste person. In a deposition taken by the defendants’ attorneys, Zoffin claimed 25 similarities between herself and Harlette, including physical attributes, locations, and events described in the story, such as that Harlette’s best friend is named Joan and Zoffin’s best friend is named Joan, and that both Harlette’s and Zoffin’s parents were divorced. 3
The defendants’ attorneys have asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing the magazine story was labeled as fiction and does not purport to describe a real person. They also argue “slut” is not per se defamatory, and may be innocently construed as describing Harlette as a bully, because the word itself has multiple meanings, including a bold, brazen girl.
a. Discuss what Zoffin will have to prove to win the defamation suit, including in your analysis whether she is a public or private figure.
b. Explain what you believe will be the outcome of the case and why.
c. Assuming you were the editor of Adolescent Angst, what do you see as the advantages and drawbacks of settling Zoffin’s case before trial?