Larry Sinclair and Slander

The National Press Club has been taking some heat for allowing Larry Sinclair, the wanted, formerly incarcerated crazy person who claims to have engaged in certain deviant behaviors with Barack Obama, to hold a press conference in its Washington, D.C., building today. Critics cite the dubious nature of Sinclair’s accusation and wonder why a respected institution would give Sinclair a platform.

But here’s another angle: Is the Press Club enabling slander? When a newspaper runs an ad or column it knows to be libelous, the publication can be held legally accountable for defamation. Does the Press Club hold equal responsibility for Sinclair’s views?

David Heller, a lawyer for the Media Law Resource Center , says the Press Club is probably in the clear for three reasons. First, libel (or, when it’s spoken, slander) by definition requires that someone espouse views they know to be untrue , or show a reckless disregard for the truth—the general standard known as “actual malice.” Sinclair’s charges are absurdly flimsy—he even failed a polygraph test—but no one knows them to be false. Second, publications are often able to invoke a “neutral reportage privilege” that says they reported a defamatory but newsworthy claim accurately and objectively. Some states have such a privilege; others don’t. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear cases on the question. And thirdly, the Press Club can immunize itself by dissociating from or disagreeing with Sinclair’s claims. Talk radio hosts will often respond to a slanderous caller by pointing out that “we don’t know that” or “that hasn’t been proven” just to defend against potential law suits. Similarly, the Press Club can distance itself from Sinclair. And it has. Sylvia Smith, the club’s president, told Politico that Sinclair’s allegations “don’t seem very credible.”

So merely providing a forum for Sinclair is unlikely to get them in trouble. If the Obama campaign wants to hold someone accountable for Sinclair’s views, it will probably be Sinclair himself.