Libel, or the Relevance of the RIck Pitino Soap Opera

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IApril 20, 2009

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 17:  Rick Pitino the Head Coach of the Louisville Cardinals is pictured during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats during the game at Rupp Arena on December 17, 2005 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky upset the 4th ranked Cardinals 73-61.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

I don't have a bleeping idea what's going on in Louisville, and unlike many other electro-fabulists, I'm going to refrain from connecting the dots how I see fit.

What I do know is that a few simple details have spawned a wealth of crazy deductive leaps only possible by a culture feasting on poorly written television.

Thoreau wrote that "the world is just a canvas to our imaginations." In contrast to his optimism about the human mind, this budding Rick Pitino extortion story illustrates that we can paint some repulsively stupid pictures in a very quick space of time.

Three notable ones I've seen so far while looking over some message boards:

(a) Pitino is a filthy recruiter; woman involved has dirt on him, wanted an extravagant amount of money; Pitino called the FBI.

(b) Pitino is gay with her soon-to-be ex-husband; she demanded money to keep quiet; he called the FBI.

(c) Pitino possibly raped her and forced her to get an abortion; she threatened to talk; he made up a bogus extortion claim.

Option (c) is especially notable because I found it right here on this site, with over 11,000 reads (significantly more than many small-town newspapers).

It doesn't take an Einstein, or even a Thoreau, to see that at least one of these must be indisputably false. In fact, there's a good chance that all three are false.

Would-be Internet journalists should find this result notable, for someone amongst these three is likely guilty of libel.

Libel in the American courts requires five elements: publication, identification, words that defame character, falseness, and demonstrated authorship.

The landmark Supreme Court case Times v. Sullivan (1966) added a necessary criterion for public figures (like Rick Pitino): actual malice (plaintiff has to show an intent to damage someone beyond emotional distress).

Higher-level courts in the United States have yet to truly hash out the issue of Internet publication, but the cases on the books have not gone in favor of the random idiots (see, for example, Wagner v. Mishkin, 2003 North Dakota 69).

How does this all apply to you, Internet journalist, and how does it apply to Bleacher Report in general?

I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of defamation law, nor can I predict where the law is going in the future.

But I do posit that at some point in the near future, someone in the sports world is going to realize how much this ball of wires drives opinion. Someone with the resources will be mad enough to quantify their damage and go after a random Internet idiot.

I sincerely believe we're a test case away from significantly changing the attitude of many non-mainstream Internet writers and publishers.

Someone of Pitino's stature would have an incredibly hard time winning a libel case. But often neglected is that these matters often involve non-public figures, in this case the woman and Louisville's equipment manager.

No amount of conjuring can make them public figures, and if you make knowingly false claims about them, you're guilty of libel.

As for Bleacher Report itself, the law is extremely ambiguous, as its mission statement and service seem to wedge it between that of a traditional publication and of a provider clearly given immunity under the Communications Decency Act.

Either way, it might be fun to play make believe that you're the Woodward or Bernstein of the Internet sports world, meeting insiders in parking lots and getting the real inside scoop.

It probably provides a nice little endorphin release telling everyone the "whole sordid ordeal" just before getting back to your World of Warcraft game.

But when you pass damaging non-truth as truth, it doesn't matter if you have some silly Internet moniker or not; legally speaking, you're swimming in shark-infested waters.

That result, to me, has become the real story of this weekend. Thousands of idiots make up their own Rick Pitino stories, searching for Derby pictures of the woman in question, a few dumb enough to post with "...I know a credible source..." or a "...the media isn't saying this because..." just waiting for something to bite them.

The shark may not come for a while, but I'll have no sympathy when he gets here.