Limbaugh May Have Grounds for Libel Suit, Legal Analysts Say
Saturday, October 17, 2009
By Joshua Rhett Miller
Rush Limbaugh, who saw his bid to co-own a National Football League team sacked partly because of quotes he purportedly made regarding slavery, could have grounds for a libel suit, legal experts told Foxnews.com.
The conservative radio host was dropped on Wednesday from a group seeking to buy the St. Louis Rams. Dave Checketts, chairman of the St. Louis Blues hockey team, who is leading the effort to buy the NFL team, said Limbaugh was dropped from the group after his involvement in the process became a "complication and a distraction."
Limbaugh's role in the potential sale became the target of liberals on Monday when reports surfaced on news organizations including CNN, MSNBC and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the radio personality once said that slavery "had its merits."
"Slavery built the South," Limbaugh was reported to have said. "I'm not saying we should bring it back. I'm just saying it had its merit. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark."
That purported statement, according to Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, came from a 2006 book, "101 People Who Are Really Screwing America," by John Huberman, which does not provide specific details regarding the quote.
Limbaugh has repeatedly denied making the statement. On his radio show on Wednesday, he said, "They continue to spread the false, fabricated quotes and lies, and people continue to comment on them. So I'm faced with the dilemma, what do I do with this?"
One of the things he can do is pick up the ball and run straight to court. Lis Wiehl, a former federal prosecutor and Fox News legal analyst, said Limbaugh has grounds for a libel suit if he can prove he never uttered those words.
"If he didn't say that, his people should come out and say that," Wiehl said. "If it's true he didn't say that, then this is horrible what those organizations are trying to do to slime him."
As a public figure, Wiehl said, Limbaugh would have to prove actual malice and damages -- meaning he'd have to show that the media organizations knowingly and maliciously published that information without regard for the truth, and that he suffered because of it.
"It's a higher standard," she said. "If they actually made up a quote that cost him a deal that he would've otherwise gotten, then yeah, he's got a case."
If the matter revolved around a non-public figure, the potential lawsuit would be a "slam dunk," Wiehl said.
"[Limbaugh] would literally have to prove that whoever put that out did so knowingly in an attempt to hurt him," she continued. "If I were his lawyer, I would argue actual malice. If it's fabricated, what other reason would they make it up?"
Lee Armstrong, a New York-based attorney for the law firm Jones Day, said Limbaugh would have a "very high burden" to meet as a public figure to sue for libel or defamation. But if the quote was indeed fabricated, Armstrong said the radio personality has a potential case.
"These cases typically settle, and they settle not necessarily for money, but maybe the news organization will print a retraction or give Rush the ability to counterbalance what is being said," Armstrong said.
If a lawsuit were to proceed, Armstrong said a potentially fascinating situation would unfold as Limbaugh's attorneys would be granted access to documents on exactly how the story or news segment became published.
"Rush would be able to try and discover whether there's this liberal machinery he's always talking about," Armstrong said. "The whole world would be watching. That's what's interesting."
Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, has called on CNN and MSNBC to prove Limbaugh actually made the slavery comment or immediately retract and apologize for their role in disseminating the message.
"The CNN and MSNBC 'news' networks are guilty of promoting outright falsehoods and purposely using fabricated disinformation created by left-wing radicals to destroy a conservative leader," Bozell said in a statement released Wednesday. "There is no grey area here. CNN and MSNBC were given ample time opportunity to come clean, but both are continuing to masquerade malicious lies as credible."
A CNN spokeswoman had not provided a response to questions as of midday Thursday. Calls to MSNBC were not returned and attempts to reach Huberman were unsuccessful.