Thomas Sowell

To sue or not to sue? That is the question.

After racist statements were made up out of thin air and then attributed to Rush Limbaugh, these were the options he had.

It is easy for me to understand that these are not simple choices because I have faced those options as well. Recently there have been a number of columns made up by others and put on the Internet with my name on them. The things said in those bogus columns have nothing in common with anything that I have said, in my columns, in my books or anywhere else.

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Years ago, CBS reporter Lem Tucker said in a broadcast on October 13, 1981 that my views "seem to place him in the school that believes that maybe most blacks are genetically inferior to white people."

Anyone interested in the facts could have discovered that I had argued directly against this idea in a number of writings, including a feature article in the New York Times Magazine on March 27, 1977.

An attorney I did not know, but who had read my writings and knew that what was insinuated in that broadcast was totally false, offered to represent me in a lawsuit against CBS. That was when I faced the kind of dilemma that Rush Limbaugh faces now.

When someone is considered to be a "public figure"-- and Rush Limbaugh is certainly that-- the Supreme Court has narrowed the grounds on which that public figure can sue for libel, to the point where even the most blatant lie can often go unpunished.

Worse yet, there may be millions of people who never heard the original lie but who will hear it repeated in the media as a result of news stories about the lawsuit. And when those who committed character assassination are let off the hook on a technicality, they can claim "vindication," as if what they said was true.

The question facing any public figure who has been the target of character assassination in the media is: Is it worth investing a large amount of time in a process that can make you worse off by spreading the very lie that you are suing to stop?

The down side of not suing is that it allows the lie to continue to be repeated in the media, with later repetitions being justified in terms of "just reporting" what someone else said.

No one can resolve this dilemma for someone else. My decision in 1981 was that I had too many other things to do for me to go into the exhausting and time-consuming process of suing CBS, with such dicey odds in the courts.

Every situation is different, so whether Rush Limbaugh should sue is a question that only he can answer.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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