I. The Daily Telegraph officially apologized “unreservedly” to Melania Trump and agreed to pay her “substantial damages” for an article it published last week. Mrs. Trump had sued the paper in British courts.
The paper said its Saturday Magazine cover story “The Mystery of Melania” this month contained false statements, as her lawsuit claimed. It wrote,
Following last Saturday’s (Jan 19) Telegraph magazine cover story “The mystery of Melania”, we have been asked to make clear that the article contained a number of false statements which we accept should not have been published. Mrs Trump’s father was not a fearsome presence and did not control the family. Mrs Trump did not leave her Design and Architecture course at University relating to the completion of an exam, as alleged in the article, but rather because she wanted to pursue a successful career as a professional model. Mrs Trump was not struggling in her modelling career before she met Mr Trump, and she did not advance in her career due to the assistance of Mr Trump.
We accept that Mrs Trump was a successful professional model in her own right before she met her husband and obtained her own modelling work without his assistance. Mrs Trump met Mr Trump in 1998, not in 1996 as stated in the article. The article also wrongly claimed that Mrs Trump’s mother, father and sister relocated to New York in 2005 to live in buildings owned by Mr Trump. They did not. The claim that Mrs Trump cried on election night is also false.
We apologise unreservedly to The First Lady and her family for any embarrassment caused by our publication of these allegations. As a mark of our regret we have agreed to pay Mrs Trump substantial damages as well as her leg
It would be understandable if you were in shock reading this, since the prospect of an American paper having to admit printing falsehoods about anyone named Trump and paying damaged for it is unimaginable. The British system is not constrained by a Bill of Rights, however, or a First Amendment. “Freedom of the Press” is far from absolute. Thanks to New York Times v. Sullivan, For a newspaper to have to pay damaged to a target who is a public figure requires, “actual malice” as well as reckless disregard for the truth must be proven–and that standard is impossibly high. Melania’s husband, among others, has called on the U.S. to modify its nearly absolute protection of the press, so stories like the Telegraph’s could be actionable in the U.S. as well. Tempting as it is, especially to the Trumps, this is a bad idea, even though it allows, and encourages, the current plague of “fake news.”
The principle, as Clarence Darrow wrote in a letter (that has somehow avoided the internet, but I have read it) “In order to have enough liberty, it is necessary to have too much.” Darow’s point is that liberty requires breathing room and wide margins for error. If the institutions and public in a democracy have to fear too much of nicking the law and provoking official revenge, or if the “truth” is used to constrain statements of opinion, even reckless opinion, then the governments’ boot will soon be on the throats of all of us.
No, the news media must be given free rein to be irresponsible, for all the harm they do. Remember the adage that when ethics fail, the law steps in, and usually makes things worse. Responsible journalism must be a matter of ethics, not law.
II. Tennessee state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D) has proposed a bill that would enforce a dress code on all parents in the state when they visit public schools. He argues that such a measure is necessary because of the decline in decorum and civility, with parents undermining efforts by the state to civilize students
“People wearing next to nothing. People wearing shirts or tattoos with expletives. People coming onto a school campus and cursing the principal or the teacher out. These things happen regularly,” Parkinson told an interviewer. “A principal I talked to told me a lady came into the office with her sleepwear on with some of her body parts hanging out. You got children coming down the hall in a line and they can possibly see this.”
Parkinson’s law would also require public school districts across Tennessee to create their own “codes of conduct” for adults when visiting public schools.
“Whether you’re there to work, whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a vendor, a visitor, a speaker — anyone who steps on a school campus should be held to a basic minimum expectation of conduct and behavior,” he asserts. “That includes how one dresses.”
Nope. Heaven knows I sympathize with Mr. Parkinson, but that’s the nose of one mean and ugly camel, and we don’t want his smelly proboscis in the tent of our democracy. Once the government starts enforcing “codes of conduct” for private citizens beyond prohibiting criminal activity like disturbing the peace and starting riots, liberty’s life in America will be nasty, brutish and short. Here, as in I above, I am confident that the Supreme Court would not permit such a law, particularly since it would discriminate against the poor and those with atrocious taste, which is about 70% of the population.
“In order to have enough liberty, it is necessary to have too much.”
Memorize it. Teach it to your kids, if you have ’em, or your friends, if you don’t. Use it often.
Clarence Darrow has been dead for more than 80 years, but he may save us from the law, and ourselves, yet.
Eh, what the hell: if you want to read my book (compiled and edited with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ed Larson) about Darrow’s varied and fascinating speeches and writings, you can do so here. Don’t worry: I won’t get any more royalties; at this point, I owe the publishers.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find that Darrow quote until years later, in this book, which revealed the great lawyer’s previously unpublished letters.