House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has called on Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke to sue Rush Limbaugh for calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute” on his radio show. Hoyer insists that the reprehensible comments are also actionable libel. He is half right.
There is no question that Limbaugh’s attacks on this law student are reprehensible and outrageous. Limbaugh repeated the statements in later shows and later days to show that he was not backing down — taunting his critics. Then, advertisers began to drop his show and Limbaugh suddenly had a change of heart and apologized. (Much like the nationwide tour of apology by Bill Maher over his post-9-11 comments on Politically Incorrect, the host found that there are limits even for celebrities who pride themselves on being untouchable or unrepentant). Limbaugh essentially claimed a poor choice of words . . . that he used over and over again. Limbaugh’s apology has not helped slow the exodus of sponsors.
Hoyer’s desire to see the matter in a defamation filing, however, ignores some barriers to recovery. First, Fluke is a public figure or limited public figure. She chose to appear in public and give interviews on her views and lifestyle. It was a courageous choice but a choice that triggers the standard under New York Times v. Sullivan requiring that she satisfy the higher test for defamation of either knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth.
Second, there is protection in the common law for opinion. Ironically, Limbaugh can cite the late conservative columnist Robert Novak. Novak made his reputation as one of the most biased and hard-hitting columnists from the right. In Ollman v. Evans, 750 F.2d 970 (D.C. Cir. 1984), Novak was sued and a court ruled in his favor on the basis that everyone knew he was not writing as a disinterested journalist. In Ollman v. Evans, 750 F.2d 970 (D.C. Cir. 1984), he and his co-writer Rowland Evans were found:
The reasonable reader who peruses an Evans and Novak column on the editorial or Op-Ed page is fully aware that the statements found there are not “hard” news like those printed on the front page or elsewhere in the news sections of the newspaper. Readers expect that columnists will make strong statements, sometimes phrased in a polemical manner that would hardly be considered balanced or fair elsewhere in the newspaper. National Rifle Association v. Dayton Newspaper, Inc., supra, 555 F.Supp. at 1309. That proposition is inherent in the very notion of an “Op-Ed page.” Because of obvious space limitations, it is also manifest that columnists or commentators will express themselves in condensed fashion without providing what might be considered the full picture. Columnists are, after all, writing a column, not a full-length scholarly article or a book. This broad understanding of the traditional function of a column like Evans and Novak will therefore predispose the average reader to regard what is found there to be opinion.
Just as Novak was not viewed as a news reporter, Limbaugh benefits even more from the protection since his show in not intermingled with authentic news in a newspaper. He is an unabashed critic with a reputation for outrageous commentary.
Third, the mitior sensus doctrine would become an issue, though it might not prove a barrier to Fluke in this case. The doctrine requires that, when two or more interpretations of a word are possible, courts should accept the non-defamatory meaning. In Bryson v. News Am. Publs., 174 Ill. 2d 77; 672 N.E.2d 1207 (Ill. 1996), the Illinois Supreme Court considered a lawsuit over “the March 1991 edition of Seventeen magazine that referred to the plaintiff as a ‘slut’ and implied that she was an unchaste individual.” The Court applied the doctrine and noted that contemporary meaning must be considered in the use of the doctrine:
The defendants finally note that our appellate court has held that it is not defamatory per se to call a woman a slut. Roby v. Murphy, 27 Ill. App. 394 (1888). . . Roby was decided more than 100 years ago. It is evident that neither the law of defamation nor our use of language has remained stagnant for the last century. Terms that had innocuous or only nondefamatory meanings in 1888 may be considered defamatory today. See, e.g., Moricoli v. Schwartz, 46 Ill. App. 3d 481, 5 Ill. Dec. 74, 361 N.E.2d 74 (1977) (rejecting the defendant’s claim that the term “fag” should be innocently construed, because the dictionary definitions for that term included “cigarette” and “to become weary”; stating that the plaintiff “is a fag” amounted to a charge that the plaintiff was homosexual); Manale v. City of New Orleans, 673 F.2d 122 (5th Cir. 1982) (referring to the plaintiff, a fellow police officer, as “a little fruit” and “gay” falsely charged the plaintiff with homosexuality and was defamatory per se); Tonsmeire v. Tonsmeire, 281 Ala. 102, 199 So. 2d 645 (1967) (“affair” is commonly understood to mean unchastity rather than a platonic association).
At the time Roby was decided, Webster’s dictionary defined the term “slut” as “an untidy woman,” “a slattern” or “a female dog,” and stated that the term was “the same as bitch.'” Roby, 27 Ill. App. at 398. Apparently, when Roby was decided, none of the dictionary definitions of “slut” implied sexual promiscuity. Moreover, the Roby court found that, even in its “common acceptance,” the term “slut” did not amount to a charge of unchastity. Roby, 27 Ill. App. at 398.
We cannot simply assume that the term “slut” means the same thing today as it did a century ago. Many modern dictionaries include the definitions of the term “slut” cited in Roby, but add new definitions that imply sexual promiscuity. See, e.g., Webster’s New World Dictionary (2d Coll. ed. 1975) (“a sexually immoral woman”); American Heritage Dictionary 1153 (2d Coll. ed. 1985) (“[a] woman of loose morals” “prostitute”). Moreover, in the present age, the term “slut” is commonly used and understood to refer to sexual promiscuity. See Smith v. Atkins, 622 So. 2d 795 (La. App. 1993) (law professor called a female student a “slut” in class; appellate court found that term was libelous per se).
Limbaugh could argue that the use of “slut” raises the question of whether the term is used so widely in modern discourse that it is no longer taken literally. That would be difficult here in the context of the statements. (Ironically, he might fare better with “prostitute” since that is clearly opinion and he was analogizing the receipt of government funds for contraception to prostitution — something covered under opinion defenses.) Limbaugh could argue that a more innocent meaning of slut is simply someone who sleeps around — a term no longer treated as socially stigmatizing.
Finally, there is the question of free speech. While I detest the comments, Limbaugh has a right to speak on such issues. He could claim that, while unpopular, he views a woman who has an active sex life before marriage to be a slut as his personal opinion. He can even argue truth as a defense. That would come with two obvious liabilities, of course. First, he is already sinking fast in terms of sponsors. Such a legal defense would only deepen the divide. Second, he is likely to find a jury that is less than pleased with such a defense.
On balance, I believe that this is protected speech and would not be viewed as defamation. While I understand and share Hoyer’s anger over the comments, filing a torts lawsuit would not advance Fluke’s cause.
What do you think?
The House’s second-ranking Democrat said Sandra Fluke, who was swept up in a national furor when Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” because of her stance on contraceptives, needs to explore legal options against the radio host, Hoyer said. A Georgetown Law grad himself, Hoyer called Limbaugh’s comment “reprehensible.”
“I’d like to see her take him to court,” Hoyer said, according to a report in the Montgomery Advertiser. “She is not a public figure and, for that reason, she should be able to sue for slander, libel or whatever else might be involved.” See also: Rush on air: Apology was heartfelt.
Hoyer was in Selma, Ala., for the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee marking the “Bloody Sunday” events of 1965.
Fluke was thrust into the national spotlight when she wasn’t allowed to testify in front of a congressional hearing on the Obama administration’s contraception rule. She spoke before an informal Democratic hearing late last month about the need for easier access to birth control, prompting Limbaugh’s remarks.
Limbaugh on Saturday apologized for his comments, but that hasn’t done much to quell the backlash. The controversial conservative commentator has lost eight advertisers, with AOL being the latest to drop, according to the Associated Press.