The First Amendment is being assaulted and the censorship weapon is the libel law. Some of the cases — Miss Wyoming/Penthouse and Carol Burnett/National Enquirer — were well politicized. Others, involving free speech rights, were not.
Pat Haworth protested a land development in a letter to a newspaper and was sued for $3 million; Robert Putter criticized a Dallas police investigator in letters to officials and was fined $4,000; Rick Webb claimed a coal company polluted a West Virginia river and was sued for $200,000; The SHAD Alliance protested a nuclear power plant and was sued for $2 million; the NAACP protested alleged police brutality in San Francisco and was sued by the Police Officers Association for $50 million.
Even the threat of a suit is effective. The Institute for Policy Studies threatened to sue Avon if changes were not made in the paperback edition of The Spike. Avon caved in and more changes were made than had ever been made in a work of fiction between the hard-cover and paperback edition.
One of the most chilling examples of libel as an instrument of news suppression is the case of John Trumbo, a reporter for the Grass Valley Union, a small daily in Northern California. Trumbo was investigating a story that the director of a small school for troubled teenagers allegedly was involved in drug abuse and embezzlement. When the director learned of the investigation, he filed a $5.4 million suit against Trumbo and the Union … before the story appeared. It has not yet appeared.
The fear of litigation also has led to an almost total blackout of one of the most sensational libel trials in media history, ABC is being sued for $41 million by the Synanon Foundation for a series of TV broadcasts in San Francisco in 1978. Despite its sensational nature and the critical issue of press freedom, the trial has received virtually no coverage because newspapers and broadcasters are scared to get involved in the story. Probably for good reason. Synanon also has or is suing Jack Anderson, Reader’s Digest, Time Magazine, and the Hearst Newspapers.
Columbia Journalism Review, 11/81, “Asking for Trouble” by Nadine Joseph; Berkeley Gazette, 3/l/81, “A Major Story That Has Gone Unreported by Herbert Kroll; The Nation, 6/6/81, “Libel as a Political Weapon” by Eve Fell; Inquiry, 5/11, 6/15, and 9/14, 1981, “First Amendment Watch,” a series of three articles by Nat Hentoff.