Book Bloggers Beware: The Early Lessons of Hadid v. New York Review of Books

Bloggers BewareAs 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).

17 thoughts on “Book Bloggers Beware: The Early Lessons of Hadid v. New York Review of Books

  1. Hmm, indeed it seems like Filler went out of his way to isolate and distort one part of the work. Pretty unnecessary, like you say.
    Like Theo I simply won’t review a book unless I can say some good things about it. Exception being those I get off a review site I do a bit of work for and one is really obliged to review everything – there have been one or two real turkeys. It’s still incumbent on the reviewer to be fair and even-handed.
    Which reminds me, must review a certain blogger’s debut novel…

    1. Eek! Well, thanks for reading it. 🙂

      I don’t really write pure reviews on this blog (I write about issues that interest me), but I’ve definitely had some harsh words about a handful of the books I’ve featured here over the last two years. It’s just my opinion, and I would never intentionally distort a quote or mischaracterize a fact about an author or someone in his/her book.

    1. Hi Donna! I don’t know anything about the duties of architects, but it makes sense to me that the working conditions at the construction site wouldn’t be within the scope of their authority. At the same time, though, I do believe in the power of making a statement. For example, I “vote with my dollars” and try not to support companies that adhere to deplorable business practices. So, I can see what Filler is saying, but how he said it was just wrong.

  2. You are great at making me look at things in new ways! About halfway through this post, I was sure that Hadid was in the right. But by the time I go to the end, I can see just how murky the waters are when it comes to defamation suits.

    I guess this is a good lesson for all of us who review books to be very careful!

  3. A new contender for Hatchet Job of the Year!

    Or, in light of recent events in the publishing world, maybe we should create an award for ‘Hachette’ Job of the Year, to be awarded to the writer who most misunderstood an issue on which they claimed superior knowledge.

  4. Ouch. The quote was very much taken out of context. When I use quotes from fiction it’s usually to show an example of how incredible the writing is. I don’t give it a tone of thought, just grab my favorite sentences as to say “See! See how good this is!”

    Quoting from nonfiction should come with the responsibility to contextualize correctly. Blogging and the New York Review of Books are two very different platforms, granted, but I wouldn’t want to insult an author by twisting their words so I could make a point. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be sued over it.

    1. Yeah, Filler made a big mistake. What’s particularly odd in this case is that the book he was reviewing isn’t by or really about Hadid (the complaint states that she’s mentioned in the book, but she’s not the focus). So, the quotes were from an interview Hadid did at an unrelated event.

  5. I rarely write reviews anymore. 1) I hardly have time to read, much less construct a pertinent review, and 2) I’ve liked too few books lately, and a while back I decided I would not write a review if I could not give the book at least three stars.

    1. I can understand why you’d only want to write reviews of books you liked. I used to write standard reviews on this blog, but I haven’t written one in a long time. I prefer to use books as the basis for a broader discussion about issues that interest me. So, there are many, many books I’ve enjoyed that I probably won’t write about here. I should do Amazon reviews for them, though. It’s just hard to find time to do that.

  6. Definitely bad journalism, but interesting legal questions. The requirement of malice seems like a pretty high bar to meet. Are the criteria for libel different from defamation or are they the same thing?

    1. Hi! The “actual malice” standard is a high bar, but only because defamation implicates the First Amendment. We don’t want it to freeze speech. Libel is one type of defamation (it’s written defamation, while slander is spoken defamation). Technically, the cause of action in Hadid v. NYRB is libel.

  7. Wow, that is an interesting case! I am no lawyer (obvi) but I do think there are two edges to the knife of review writing.

    One thing we hear a lot (as writers/artists) is “once you make your work available for public consumption, you open yourself to criticism” and I agree with that. Once you publish your writing (or any form of art) you have to take the good with the bad, the positive reviews and sales always come with a few snarky, rude reviews, and some returns. That’s life.
    BUT if that is true, then it is also true that any review, once published, becomes fair game. The reviewer is also a writer, also publishing their work, and thus should also be open to criticism. A defamation suit would be an extreme example, and maybe not an appropriate one, but it is a good reminder that blowback on a review is always a possibility.

    Writing a book review means taking action to influence book sales, either positively or negatively. That is a serious thing, imo, and should not be done lightly.

    1. Hi Amelia! Thanks for stopping by. I agree that reviewers should be careful when they write reviews. It’s fine to criticize a work, but the criticism should be fair and substantiated. With Filler, it’s odd that he went into so much depth about Hadid when he was reviewing a book written by someone else! The criticism he hurled at her was so unnecessary.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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