The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has slapped the New York Times by reviving a defamation lawsuit filed against it by a Louisiana economics professor and libertarian who sued the newspaper for defamation after he was quoted in an article stating that slavery was “not so bad.”
The decision reverses a lower court ruling dismissing the case filed against the NYT after the paper defended itself using Louisiana’s anti-SLAPP statute, which allows courts to dismiss defamation suits against defendants who speak out on free speech issues.
In Block v. New York Times , Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola University and an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute, sued the newspaper alleging it mispresented his statements in an article that attributed racist views to libertarian scholars and discussed how ties with libertarian thinkers would impact libertarian U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s potential presidential candidacy.
The NYT article quoted Block twice. The first quote attributed to him as “one economist” in the context of the statement that some Mises Institute scholars “have championed the Confederacy” including “one economist, while faulting slavery because it was involuntary, suggested in an interview that the daily life of the enslaved was ‘not so bad — you pick cotton and sing songs.’ “
The second quoted Block by name as a Loyola University economics professor who described slavery as “not so bad” and who was also highly critical of the Civil Rights Act. “Woolworth’s had lunchroom counters, and no blacks were allowed,” Block was quoted. “Did they have a right to do that? Yes, they did. No one is compelled to associate with people against their will.”
Block alleges that the NYT article misrepresented his position, and consistent with his published writings and self-described libertarian views, that he articulated the following position during his interview:
“Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory. It violated the free law of association, and that of the slave’s private property rights in their own persons. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.”
After Block sued the NYT for defamation in a Louisiana U.S. District Court, the newspaper responded by filing a motion to strike the lawsuit citing Article 971, Louisiana’s anti-SLAPP statute. The trial court ultimately granted the NYT’s anti-SLAPP motion, dismissing Block’s claims on the grounds that he failed to create a genuine issue of fact as to the falsity, fault and defamatory meaning of the statements — essential elements of his defamation claim.
Block then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit arguing that there was a fact issue as to each element of his defamation claims, among other things.
In an Aug. 15 decision, the Fifth Circuit agreed with Block that the omission of context from the NYT article created a genuine issue of fact as to whether it mispresented his statements.
“Block states that he used the words ‘not so bad’ in a context that showed he was assessing the counterfactual and ahistorical scenario of slavery in the absence of any coercion rather than chattel slavery. He points out that the deprivation of personal autonomy is antithetical to the libertarian views he expressed,” the Fifth Circuit wrote in an unsigned per curiam decision.
“In sum, Block believes his statements underscored the importance of free association and condemned chattel slavery precisely because it was involuntary, but that the NYT quoted him out of context to make it appear that he considered chattel slavery ‘not so bad,’” the Fifth Circuit wrote.
“Because the omission of context can distort the meaning of a direct quotation, there is a genuine fact issue as to whether the article misrepresented Block’s statements,” the decision concluded, sending the case back to the trial court for further hearings.
Ward F. Lafleur, a partner in Lafayette’s Mahtook & Lafleur who represents Block, did not return a call for comment. Danielle Rhoades Ha, the NYT’s vice president of communications, said the newspaper was disappointed in the Fifth Circuit’s ruling “but remain convinced that our story was accurate and we will proceed to prove our case before the district court.”