Judges Change Mind, Reversing Verdict of Libel in Book Review Article Contained False Statements, Author Said

By 1994, Los Angeles Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 5, 1994 | Go to article overview

Judges Change Mind, Reversing Verdict of Libel in Book Review Article Contained False Statements, Author Said


1994, Los Angeles Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In a highly unusual move, a U.S. appeals court has reversed itself and ruled that The New York Times cannot be forced to pay damages for publishing a harshly critical book review.

The ruling Tuesday nullifies an opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in February.

That ruling appeared to open the door to libel suits against critics who pan movies, plays, restaurants, books or anything else offered to the public.

Judge Harry Edwards, reversing his earlier opinion, declared that he now believes that "spirited critiques of literary works" must be shielded from libel suits, except when they launch a false "personal attack" on the author.

The case involved is a $10 million lawsuit filed against the newspaper by Dan E. Moldea, author of a book linking organized crime to the National Football League.

A book reviewer had written last September that Moldea was guilty of "sloppy journalism."

Moldea's lawsuit had been revived by the appeals court in a 2-1 ruling. "For an author, a harsh review in The New York Times Book Review is at least as damaging as accusations of incompetence made against an attorney or surgeon in a legal or medical journal," Edwards wrote in the original ruling.

In response, critics and columnists dealt Edwards plenty of harsh criticism and at least a few accusations of incompetence.

For example, columnist James J. Kilpatrick slammed the decision, but conceded he was thinking twice about "what I myself write about fat-headed federal judges."

By Tuesday, Edwards had switched sides and joined the critics of his original opinion.

In a 20-page ruling, Edwards confessed to an "error of judgment."

"There is a long and rich history in our cultural and legal traditions of affording reviewers latitude to comment on literary and other works," Edwards wrote. …

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