Cambridge Police Sergeant James M. Crowley is considering a defamation lawsuit, according to his lawyer. The possibility of a lawsuit adds an intriguing element to this controversy over the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Massachusetts Police Commissioner Robert Hass has also come out to criticize the comments of President Barack Obama denouncing the actions of the police as “stupidity” and suggesting that it was a case of racial profiling.
Crowley has spent the last five years teaching the avoidance of racial profiling at the police academy and has an impeccable record, here.
A defamation lawsuit would raise some novel issues. There is no question that the suggestion that Crowley acted with racial prejudice is injurious to his professional standing, particularly given his status as an expert on combating profiling. Impugning the professional integrity of another is a per se category of defamation for slander. Indeed, such profiling can be a criminal act — another category of per se defamation. A court would likely treat this as a case of per quod defamation where extrinsic facts are needed to establish the defamatory content.
There is little chance for a lawsuit against Obama who was expressing his opinion on a public controversy. He did not expressly name Crowley (which is not a barrier to recovery but makes the case more complex) and he did not expressly say that it was racially motivated. He stated his concern that it might be racially motivated.
Gates is a different matter entirely. He currently made such allegations of abuse and racism. Crowley is not technically a public figure or limited public figure simply because he is involved in a public controversy. His status as a police officer may not be enough to make him a public official under New York Times v. Sullivan. If treated as an average citizen, he would not have to satisfy the high standard of actual malice and show either reckless disregard of the truth or knowing falsity. The Court further defined the meaning of a public official in Rosenblatt v. Baer (1966) as “those among the hierarchy of government employers who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.” But does this include rank-and-file police officers? Some courts have said yes, here and here.
The Supreme Court has clearly identified the seeking of public office as a common element in establishing public official status — as indicated in Gertz v. Robert Welch (1974) when the Court noted “An individual who decides to seek governmental office must accept certain necessary consequences of that involvement in public affairs. He runs the risk of closer public scrutiny than might otherwise be the case.” Moreover, the Court ruled out that mere public employment is not sufficient to establish this status. In Hutchinson v. Proxmire (1979), leaving it to “the trial judge in the first instance to determine whether the proofs show [the plaintiff] to be a ‘public official.’”
Three years after New York Times v. Sullivan, the Court greatly expanded the reach of the constitutional defamation standard in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts by saying that the actual malice standard applied to “public figures” as well as public officials. In Curtis, the Court described public figures as private individuals who may help shape events and views of society and “play an influential role in order society.”
There is no question that Crowley is now a public figure due to his media statements, but that does not mean that he was a public figure at the time of the statements by Gates, Sharpton, and others. As was held in Foretich v. ABC against my former client Eric Foretich, even a brief media appearance can convert an average citizens into a public figure as someone seeking public attention. Crowley, however, did not make public statements until after the original claims of racism and profiling.
Lawsuits by police officer and fire fighters have long been controversial in and of themselves. For example, under common law torts, the Fireman’s Rule barred officers from claiming the more protective status of invitees in injuries that occurred in homes. However, the common law has never limited the right of officers to bring defamation claims. Indeed, Rev. Al Sharpton (who has also intervened in this controversy with claims of racism) was found guilty of defamation of prosecutor Steven A. Pagones in the infamous case of Tawana Brawley. Notably, police officers were also defamed in that case, but the most likely litigant Harry Crist Jr. former Fishkill, NY, police officer, committed suicide after being subject to the vicious and false statements. Crowley can make the same type of allegations as in the Brawley case. Of course, the Brawley case involved allegations of the physical abuse of a young girl for racial reasons — a far more specific and clearly criminal allegation.
Gates could argue that this was merely an opinion uttered in the heat of the moment. However, the allegation continued to be made after the arrest and courts have rejected the use of the opinion defense when it is based on the assertion of a defamatory fact like racist motives.
If Crowley can avoid public official or public figure status, he could have a case. It would allow him to conduct discovery with depositions of Gates and others — a great temptation for Crowley and his allies.
There are strong public policy reasons for including police officers in the category of public officials because their actions are routinely subject to public review and scrutiny — and they hold considerable power over citizens. If he is found to be a public official, however, it becomes tougher but not impossible. He could still argue that Gates knew his allegation was false or had reckless disregard of the truth. However, Gates would argue that this was his view of the events and there is no objective means to prove one’s motivation. Moreover, Gates could argue that a ruling in favor of Crowley would expose any citizens to lawsuits by police when they allege racist motivations or actions.
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