DC Libel Hearing Explores Political Free Press Issues

By Andrew Kreig / Project Director's Blog

Attorneys for three major book distributors asked a federal judge Feb. 28 to remove them from a libel lawsuit that they described as threatening public affairs book publishing in the United States if allowed to proceed. Despite those threatened stakes, there’s been virtually no news coverage of the case. This is doubtless because the book at issue ─ Barack Obama & Larry Sinclair: Cocaine, Sex, and Lies & Murder? ─ is self-published by author Larry Sinclair and highly controversial. Just three writers at most, all for web-based media, were among the seven spectators including this editor for the hearing in Washington, DC’s federal courthouse.

The hearing helped illustrate why the Justice Integrity Project was founded last year for non-partisan legal research and reform advocacy. Our courts continually resolve important and politically-charged issues, often with scant or biased coverage by the traditional media. No matter what one thinks of Sinclair or his allegations, a near-complete news blackout of a significant court case should not be the remedy.

Let’s examine the arguments: No court has ever held a book distributor liable for merely selling a book, Amazon.com attorney Matthew Segal and Barnes & Noble counsel Linda Steinman told U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in arguments echoed by Books-a-Million. Steinman said her client couldn’t continue to do business as presently if it had to research the factual basis of the 30 million titles it sells, including such controversial authors as Michael Moore, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. “We rely on the publisher to stand behind the book,” she continued. “That’s where the redress is.” She and others argued also that the Communications Decency Act provides extra protections for Internet distributors of public affairs commentary. According to plaintiff’s attorney Richard Oparil, however, distributors should have known that the book subjected them to liability. He represents Whitehouse.com website operator Dan Parisi in a $30 million suit that includes Sinclair as a co-defendant. Oparil argued to the judge that distributors should remain defendants while Parisi undertakes discovery needed to gather more evidence against them.

Sinclair’s book is primarily about his attempts since 2008 to describe what he claims are two brief encounters in 1999 with the future President Obama. Representing himself because of lack of funds for an attorney, Sinclair urged the judge, at left, to dismiss the suit outright under well-established First Amendment precedents, including Parisi's status as a public figure. Also, Sinclair said he made good faith efforts to research the brief references to Parisi that are at the core of the dispute. Sinclair’s book suggested that Parisi was associated with pornography distribution, which Parisi has denied.

In court, Sinclair held up a manila envelope that he said contained further proof about Parisi that he wanted to file with the court in support of his dismissal motion. “Why not hold onto that?” the judge responded. “The court may not need it.” Leon, who was confirmed in 2002 for the bench after nomination by President George W. Bush and long government service, said he would rule on the motions soon.

During the hearing, the judge frequently pushed the plaintiff’s lawyer to justify the legal basis of the suit and its claims for damages. Parisi’s lawyer is a partner at Patton Boggs, arguably Washington’s most famous and most powerful lobbying law firm. “Is it your position,” the judge asked the lawyer, “that just because somebody complains [about a book] a court has to issue a cease-and-desist order?” The judge questioned the plaintiffs to cite controlling case law for the proposition that a court could ban a book on a claim of falsity when no legal determination has occurred that facts are in error. Later, the judge pressed Oparil on his claim of $30 million in damages in alleged lost value from the site because of references by Sinclair. “This isn’t exactly Facebook we’re talking about here,” the judge said. Sinclair’s book mentioned Parisi’s site in trying address why the site asserted that Sinclair had failed a lie-detector test about his claim that he met Obama on two occasions.

Oparil justified his legal brief of some 270 pages, much of it a collection of anonymous commentaries from Internet sites, by saying his client had encountered a death threat and wanted extensive discovery. Sinclair responded that he had received multiple death threats and that anonymous “reader” comments from websites do not constitute a sound legal basis for banning a book or imposing legal liability. Each of attorneys in the case declined comment after the hearing. Similarly, three of the six other spectators in the courtroom declined to identify themselves or reasons for attending. The other spectators were a child of one of the attorneys, an attorney for a related libel suit against radio talk show host Jeff Rense for hosting Sinclair, and Wayne Madsen, an investigative reporter, author and broadcast commentator. As a commentator in 2008, Madsen cast suspicion on Sinclair as a potential political dirty tricks operative. More recently, Madsen has examined Sinclair in neutral or even sympathetic fashion, as in a report this week on his subscription-only website: “Lawsuit hearing against Obama book author Larry Sinclair now in deliberation.” That article included this background:

Parisi, the operator of several Internet websites, including WhiteHouse.com, alleges in his lawsuit that he was defamed by Sinclair's book because of statements by Sinclair that Parisi was an "Internet pornographer" and that statement somehow reduced the value of his website and prevented its expansion because potential investors were frightened away by Sinclair's allegations. The plaintiff's side stated that WhiteHouse.com, which had subjected Sinclair to a polygraph examination after he advanced his allegations about Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign -- a polygraph WhiteHouse.com accused Sinclair of flunking -- was developing itself into a "mainstream political site, with news and commentary."

The plaintiff also alleges that he lost $250,000 that he invested to get the working capital and investors to start an Internet television venture with WhiteHouse.com. The Patton & Boggs attorney said that the allegations contained in Sinclair's book hurt his client's business venture. To that, Judge Leon responded, "What allegations? The allegations about the president?" Parisi's WhiteHouse.com web site was termed a "notorious Internet porn site" by the attorney representing one of the defendants, Barnes and Noble....

We sent a follow up request for comment to Parisi and his attorney but failed to receive a response in time for publication here. We’ll update with any response we receive.

Sinclair agreed to answer questions after the hearing and pose for a photo. Based on the proceedings, he said he hoped for a favorable ruling that would allow him to resume defending himself via the book. Currently, the book is available only on Amazon.com’s Kindle and through bulk orders he can afford to copy, he said, after litigation persuaded booksellers to steer clear. His website provides his take on the book and documents about the litigation. Vast numbers of anti-Sinclair commentaries have been published on websites by skeptics, especially by Obama supporters who accuse Sinclair of being a plant by political opponents or unscrupulous attention-seeker. Sinclair’s site includes also the content of the evidence he intended to offer against Parisi. Sinclair said that before he left his residence in Chattanooga to attend the court hearing he timed the site to display the filing, not expecting that the judge would decline to see it. Oparil, as noted above, declined to comment on the contents of the envelope that Sinclair gave him as a courtesy after the hearing adjourned.

In the interview, Sinclair also responded to a question about his state of mind after a distressing period late last summer. The McClendon Group is a speaker society based at the National Press Club that often features what its leadership regards as newsmakers avoided the mainstream media. It invited Sinclair to speak last summer. But only five persons showed up to hear his account of a wayward past that included occasional drug use and near random sex, and the difficulties he had encountered in finding any forum for a tale that he insists is truthful. Underscoring the mainstream media's disdain for him (and some would argue against others who accuse powerful leaders in both parties of indiscretions) the Press Club’s leadership hired an armed guard to keep vigil outside the room where Sinclair spoke. The guard then hustled Sinclair out of the club immediately after his talk, thereby sending a message to him and any listeners that he was persona non grata. In temporarily moving to Washington to fight Patton Boggs and Parisi, Sinclair then embarked in a fruitless search for an attorney or legal clinic willing to represent him pro bono against them so that he could resume book sales and otherwise defend himself.

In response to a question outside the courthouse Monday, Sinclair also spoke publicly for the first time about the overdose of pills he took last September because of his plight, which he says includes a painful herniated disk he cannot treat. In September, he said, Secret Service personnel monitoring his activities saved his life by summoning emergency medical treatment after he left voicemail messages with several friends saying, without disclosing his location, that he had taken an overdose of pills in despair. He said he was rescued, and hospitalized for 14 days. Upon release, the South Carolina native ─ who says he has been openly gay since his student days ─ said he decided to return South from what he described as an oppressive environment in Washington.

Concerning his mental outlook, Sinclair said, “I’m fine now.”

Below are significant articles on legal reform and related political, security and media factors. The articles contain a sample of news. See the full article by visiting the Project home page's section on News Reports, and clicking the link.

Legal Schnauzer, Clarence Thomas Faces Call for Disbarment, Roger Shuler, March 2, 2011. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should be disbarred for his failure to truthfully complete financial-disclosure forms over a 20-year period, according to a complaint filed by the watchdog group Protect Our Elections.

New Yorker, Keeping Quiet About Davis, Amy Davidson, Feb. 28, 2011. The column by the Times’s Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, on the case of Raymond Davis—the man who reportedly had some connection to the C.I.A. and is now in Pakistani custody after killing two policemen who, he has said, he thought were thieves—is genuinely puzzling. The Times reported last week that it had kept silent about Davis’s C.I.A. connection. Brisbane attempted to explain why. What we get, instead, is Brisbane’s credo: “Editors don’t have the standing to make a judgment that a story—any story—is worth a life.”

Jersey Journal, Jersey City political figure and MUA board member pleads guilty to taking bribe, has no present plans to resign, Terrence T. McDonald, March 2, 2011. A Jersey City political operative and Municipal Utilities Authority board member admitted yesterday to accepting a $10,000 bribe from a government informant, becoming Hudson County's 13th defendant in the massive 2009 corruption sweep to plead guilty. Joseph Cardwell, 69, pleaded guilty in federal court in Newark to one charge of bribery in connection with Operation Bid Rig III, which resulted in 46 arrests of public officials in Hudson County and beyond. "He did today what was right for him and his family," said Anna G. Cominsky, one of Cardwell's attorneys. "Joe accepted responsibility for his actions, but this guilty plea does not define him." Click for Indictment.

Jackson Clarion-Ledger / Associated Press, Paul Minor back in court before resentencing, March 1, 2011.  Imprisoned former attorney Paul Minor was back in federal court Tuesday, where he asked a judge to approve subpoenas he hopes will help his case during a re-sentencing hearing next week. Minor, a 64-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran, was considered one of the best tort lawyers in Mississippi before being convicted in a high-profile judicial bribery case in 2007. He had made a fortune by suing tobacco, asbestos and other companies.

Salon Unclaimed Territory,The military/media attacks on the Hastings article, Glenn Greenwald, Feb. 27, 2011. Here, for instance, is what Norah O'Donnell said on MSNBC when reporting on the controversy with Tamron Hall: “I can tell you that there are a number of people in the military and the Defense Department who are not happy with The Rolling Stone because of what happened earlier with General Stanley McCrystal.” O'Donnell just mindlessly passes on the smear, protecting the identity of the accusers while failing to identify a single specific reason why Hastings' journalism should be called into question. She's simply acting as dutiful, protective spokesperson-stenographer for military leaders.

Independent, Phone hacking: Now judge tells police to stop protecting names, Cahal Milmo and Martin Hickman, Feb. 25, 2011. Ruling threatens to implicate more News International executives. The likelihood of further News of the World (NotW) journalists being dragged into the phone-hacking scandal increased yesterday when a judge ruled that names believed to belong to the paper's employees should no longer be blanked out on key documents. In a ruling designed to streamline the snowballing number of legal claims being brought against Rupert Murdoch's top-selling title, the High Court said that notes written by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire which it is claimed show who at the NotW commissioned him to hack phone messages must be disclosed to his alleged victims.

Connecticut Watchdog, Inside Story on DoD’s Boeing Air Force Tanker Deal: Opinion Analysis, Andrew Kreig, Feb. 25, 2011.  The Department of Defense Feb. 24 announced its choice of Boeing for a $35 billion contract to build the Air Force’s next generation of mid-air refueling tankers. Boeing’s selection, subject to any challenge by the losing bidder EADS, could end a decade-long, scandal-ridden process that became one of the controversial and important in modern U.S. procurement history.


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