13. THE FIRST AMENDMENT IS IN JEOPARDY
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
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
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.
The failure of the mass media to loudly defend the issues of press
freedom and free speech and the media's passive acceptance of lawyers
in the newsroom and self-censorship qualifies this story for nomination
as one of the "best censored" stories of 1981.
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.