Last week, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, was quoted in many newspapers saying that President Clinton willingly accepts a certain level of gun violence and killing to advance his gun-control agenda. LaPierre also claimed that last year’s shooting death of Ricky Byrdsong, a former men’s basketball coach at Northwestern University, “is on the president’s hands.” In effect, LaPierre was saying that Clinton was an accessory to Byrdsong’s murder, a claim that would be hard to support on the facts of the case. So could Clinton sue LaPierre for wrongfully accusing him of a crime?
He could, but he most certainly wouldn’t win.
“Defamation” law provides remedies to a person who has been falsely accused of a crime. Defamation can be either spoken (in which case it’s called slander) or written (in which case it’s libel). Virtually every jurisdiction recognizes that falsely accusing someone of a crime counts as defamation. So, why would Clinton probably lose if he sued LaPierre?
For one thing, LaPierre could probably claim that his statement was based on opinion, rather than fact. The courts have carved out some exceptions and defenses to defamation that balance one person’s right to say what she thinks against another person’s right not to be defamed. For example, the courts have generally found that to sue someone for defamation, you must prove that she made statements of purported facts rather than opinion (unless a reasonable person would take the opinion as a statement of fact). So, a speaker or writer can be incredibly hyperbolic or vitriolic, and as long as her audience understands her statements to be opinions, there’s no defamation.
Then there’s another difficulty for Clinton: He’s a widely known political figure. Judges think there’s a special value to speech about and by our political leaders, so they have done two things that make it harder to for political figures to recover for defamation. First, in the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, the court raised the bar on what political figures must prove the speaker in a defamation case was thinking when the false statement was made. Specifically, instead of having to show that the speaker knew or should have known that the statement was false, a political-figure plaintiff must prove that the speaker either knew the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth (meaning, in layperson’s terms, that the speaker had to pretty much hide from finding the truth about her statement). Second, in the 1967 Supreme Court case Time Inc. vs. Hill, the court said that defamation claims should not arise out of commentary on legitimate matters of public interest and opinion, as long as the commentary is not made solely out of ill will, spite, or the intent to harm.
Although it appears that the NRA and LaPierre harbor intense ill will and spite for Clinton, the exceptions and defenses to defamation will most probably keep them out of court. Gun control is a matter of great public interest, so the courts would likely cut LaPierre considerable slack, as long as there is legitimate commentary in what he is saying. Similarly, the courts would be highly likely to find that as ugly and over-the-top as LaPierre’s statements may be, no reasonable person would believe that he was stating anything more than his opinion.