As vitriolic as many book reviews are—to the point that there is even an award for the “angriest, funniest, most trenchant” one of the year—relatively few of these reviews become the basis of defamation lawsuits. When it happens, it makes the news, and the latest one to make headlines is architect Zaha Hadid’s suit against The New York Review of Books and Martin Filler, the author of an allegedly defamatory review.
On June 5, 2014, the New York Review of Books published Filler’s review of Rowan Moore’s Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture.* In this review, Filler discussed Hadid’s response to the harsh labor conditions of workers at construction sites in the Middle East. He wrote:
[D]espite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. […] [Hadid] has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. ‘I have nothing to do with workers,’ Hadid has claimed. ‘It is not my duty as an architect to look at it.’
According to Hadid’s complaint,* filed August 21, 2014, the not-so-teensy-weensy problems with this paragraph are that (1) construction has not yet begun on the project to which it refers and (2) the quotes of Hadid were taken out of context. The quotes were part of a larger statement (a response to an interview question) about the deaths of construction workers at sites unrelated to her projects. What she had said was (as stated in the complaint):
I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.
I am not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I can make a statement, a personal statement, about the situation with the workers, but I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. […]
That’s a far cry from how Filler portrayed it, and Filler issued a retraction for stating that workers had died at Hadid’s project.
So, this defamation lawsuit sounds like a slam-dunk for Hadid, right?
Maybe it is, particularly if Filler and the New York Review of Books are willing to settle it quickly to make it go away. But, as a purely legal matter, these cases are never easy for Plaintiffs, even with facts like these, because of the First Amendment implications.
I see two potential problems for Hadid’s claim:
First, although Filler’s portrayal strikes me as wrong, it’s not necessarily defamatory under the law. Hadid’s complaint has a strange line in it about how Filler’s article “induced evil opinion of her in the minds of right-thinking persons, while depriving her of confidence and friendly intercourse in society,” a paraphrase of an eighty-year-old New York court opinion that’s still good law today (Here’s an example of the case being quoted earlier this year). Beyond the amusing language, though, the problem is that, although Martin portrayed Hadid’s views unfairly, it’s hard to argue that she was held up to “disgrace.” See Yonaty v. Mincolla, 97 AD3d 141 (2012).
Second, even if Hadid proves that the statement was defamatory, she would probably also have to prove that Filler acted with “actual malice,” both because the statement was made while discussing a matter of public concern and because Hadid is a public figure. New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 U.S. 254, 283. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’d have to prove that Filler meant to hurt her — a “reckless disregard for the truth” would also qualify — but it’s typically a difficult element to prove.
So what’s the lesson for the rest of us, the “uncredentialed” reviewers without a legal team or insurance behind us?
Well, as difficult as these lawsuits are for plaintiffs to win, there’s no reason for those of us who write anything on the Internet to risk it. No one wants to be a defamation defendant, a time-consuming and expensive situation. So, check quotes, check facts, and limit the vitriol. This isn’t legal advice. It’s just common sense.
*The complaint is available here (PDF).