Thursday, April 23, 2009

Coughlin v. Renner and NY Times v. Sullivan

While the blogosphere has been tittering about whether State Sen. Kevin Coughlin dallied with a staffer, some of us have been wondering why an alleged libel suit threat could possibly have spiked the story.

If you are late to the story, Scene Magazine reporter James Renner was fired last week for his reaction to news that his editor and publisher were burying a story alleging that Coughlin was having an affair with an identified former staffer. Renner sent the story to Tim Russo who published it. Professor Idontlink at Pol. Sci. 216 has also picked up the story and followed up with more detail from Renner

According to Renner's story posted on BI, Scene decided to kill the story after getting letters from Sen. Coughlin's attorney threatening a libel suit if the story went to press. The posted story also details Renner's reporting which includes interviewing multiple and an entertaining attempt to secure comment from Coughin's alleged paramour.

Based on the facts as presented by Renner, Scene's action is inexplicable. Coughlin is a public figure. As such any libel action he brings would have to meet the high constitutional standard set by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan. The Court held that:

    The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made [280] with "actual malice"--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
Recall that Renner says he has the roommate of alleged Coughlin squeeze on tape verifying the affair, plus other witnesses, put squeeze's patently evasive response to an interview request. Put it together and Coughlin has a nearly impossible task of proving that Renner was reckless.

And the Sullivan standard assumes that allegations in a story are false and therefore defamatory. If the allegations are true, Scene also wins. The Sullivan actual malice requirement offers news organizations a way to avoid the long, expensive business of proving truth. Which in a way is a pity as (from what I've heard) the defense would be able to put together a long and impressive witness list.

Scene management knows (or at least should know) all of the above. Their abject surrender to Coughlin is puzzling.


Tim Russo said...

excellent points, linked to it.

Anonymous said...

First of all, the roommate source has come forward and refuted that she said any of those things to Renner. Renner has such a track record of lying in this and in other work he has done that I would doubt his claim of having tapes.

Second, the story that Renner had published on the web may or may not be the story that Scene rejected. His proposed Scene story contained no indication of any solid evidence of an affair. All of a sudden, his story looks better sourced after he was fired? Weird.

Third, Renner's tactics in gathering his "information" have always been disgusting and shady. He lies his way into places to corner people for "interviews", he baits people into saying what he thinks he needs to make things look sexy, and he lies in his articles about what people actually said.

Anybody who knows Kevin Coughlin knows that the allegations are crap. People can gossip around the water cooler all they want. That's part of being in public life.

To the point of your blog entry, why would you buy Renner's side of the story that the story was spiked and he was fired because of a threatened lawsuit? It seems silly for a lawyer like yourself to even accept that premise from the start. Newspapers NEVER fire their reporters for that. They wear lawsuit threats like a badge of honor. There's more to this and don't expect James Renner to do anything but cover his ass.

I'm glad for once the process bit the reporter instead of his intended target.

James Renner said...

I love how these comments always come from "anonymous".

I feel like I'm repeating myself, but oh well.

The article on BloggerInterrupted is the same article that was handed in to Scene, although I have my doubts that CEO Matt Haggerty even bothered to read it. They asked me to get proof of Coughlin's affair, I found the roommate who overheard him having sex with Andrea in the apartment on several occasions.

I believe Haggerty decided not to publish it as soon as threats of lawsuit came in. Apparently, that's the kind of guy he is.

Scene knew I had the tapes. The roommate does, too. You keep saying she has "come forward" but that, of course, is untrue. Just saying it over and over again does not make it credible.

Anonymous said...

I am not aware of any previous occasions when James Renner has lied or claimed he had tapes he didn't. I am also not aware of his previous use of "disgusting" or "shady" tactics he has used. I would like "anonymous" to come forward with some specific examples, please. Also, can you link me to evidence where the roommate has "come forward"? To "come forward" means she has publically refuted the claims. Where did she do that? Thanks. I'll be looking for the links and evidence to prove the charges against Renner.

Anonymous said...

Funny how anonymous comments are a problem for James Renner when he doesn't like the comments. Yet, he based his whole Coughlin witch hunt on an anonymous comment.

Anyway, it's my understanding that Coughlin has verification from the roommate that Renner's claims are false.

If you've got tapes, James, then you'll have no problem posting them on your blog. Unedited.

Now that you've got lots of time on your hands and zero credibility, perhaps this would help you save some face.

James Renner said...

The roommate has asked me to protect her so no, I will not release the tapes online. She felt Coughlin threatened her with violence. I take that very seriously. I would not compromise her safety just to prove to you how solid the article is.

Coughlin knows he can't sue me.

Jim said...

Sorry Renner, but your last comment was pathetic and it said all we needed to know.

The roommate whose fabricated quotes you are hanging your hat on has given all Coughlin needs to make you look like a total ass.

She has also called Renner and told him she may sue and that he knows what he printed was wrong and to never contact her again.

Your excuse that you can't post the alleged tapes because "she fears Coughlin" is rubbish. He knows who she is already and what you allege she said. If there was a legitimate fear, posting the tape wouldn't make it any worse.

How gallant of you to "protect" her. You won't post the fictional tape because it doesn't exist. Your story keeps getting shadier and shadier.

As for Coughlin suing you, I hope he does and I hope he's looking into it. Every one of these comments you leave digs your hole deeper.

Then again, why should he bother giving a name to a disgraced tabloid muckraker.

Anonymous said...

Unless his little chickie gives them back, old Kevvy Wevvy ain't got the nads to sue. Anyway, Renner's story has gotten more air time than it would have in that rag he used to work for. Mission accomplished.

James Renner said...

Sorry, Jim. The roommate has certainly not threatened me. A word of advice, if Coughlin offers you anymore kool-aide, I'd start saying "no thanks".

As far as lawsuits, I look forward to it. I would love to depose Andrea, Whitney, and Christina.