In American politics there are few more polarizing figures than Al Sharpton and Rush Limbaugh. Now, in what will be a spasmodic moment of euphoria for many, Sharpton and Limbaugh may be going to court with the former suing the latter for defamation. Putting aside the sheer joy of the moment for many, the case could present some interesting questions over whether Limbaugh defamed Sharpton in a Wall Street Journal Op-ed.
Sharpton accused Limbaugh of “erroneously” characterizing his role in a string of violent incidents in New York in the early 90’s. Limbaugh stated that Sharpton “played a leading role in the 1991 Crown Heights riot (he called neighborhood Jews ‘diamond merchants’) and 1995 Freddie’s Fashion Mart riot.”
There is no question that Sharpton was involved in the protests that followed an accident where a Hasidic Rabbi accidently struck and killed an African American boy with his car.
Sharpton is relying on a study commissioned by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo that showed Sharpton was not involved in the Crown Heights incident until after the rioting had ended. The existence of such a report can be used to satisfy the higher standard for the defamation of public figures like Sharpton. Under the New York Times v. Sullivan standard, Sharpton would have to show knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth.
Ironically, Limbaugh was using the column to contest his being dumped as a possible co-owner in an NFL team due to his past inflammatory statements, particularly on race issues. Limbaugh has made such comments as “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” He resigned in 2003 from ESPN after he said that all the positive coverage of Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb was due to the fact that media was “very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” (here).
It is equally ironic to see Sharpton cry defamation. Of course, he lost in the defamation case involving Tawana Brawley. In 1987, Sharpton made himself a national figure when he organized protests after Brawley was found inside a plastic bag behind an apartment house in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. She was covered with feces and racial epithets smeared on her body and accused various white men, including Steven A. Pagones, a former Dutchess County assistant district attorney. Sharpton attacked Pagones and the other men with Ms. Brawley’s lawyers, Alton H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason.
A grand jury eventually found that the account was a hoax and Pagones successfully sued Sharpton, Maddox, Mason and Brawley. Sharpton has never apologized for his role and failed to pay the damages until various businessmen came forward to pay the damages for him in 2001.
Sharpton is known of publicly trashing other individuals or groups. He notably does not deny that he called Jews “diamond merchants.” His heated rhetoric is often criticized as using social problems for his own advancement, chanting such things as “Whose streets? Our streets!”. In one speech, he screamed “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” In the Crown Heights matter, he was widely viewed as fueling the anger and anti-Semiticism in the area. His financial dealings have been almost as controversial as his political dealings, here.
Having a Sharpton v. Limbaugh battle is almost too much for most hearts to bear like a legal version of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The key is going to be the meaning of “role in the 1991 Crown Heights riot.” If Limbaugh had simply said, “Crown Heights protests” or “Crown Heights controversy,” he would be able to secure an easy dismissal of such a lawsuit. Limbaugh, however, may try to shift the focus from the noun “riot” to the noun “role.” He could argue that Sharpton’s over-heated rhetoric had helped create the tensions that ignited in the riots.
Below is the best simulation of the possible court fight that might ensue in New York:
For the story, click here.