The New York Times reports that Lance Armstrong is considering confessing to doping in order to resume his athletic career:

Lance Armstrong, who this fall was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping and barred for life from competing in all Olympic sports, has told associates and antidoping officials that he is considering publicly admitting that he used banned performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions during his cycling career, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation. He would do this, the people said, because he wants to persuade antidoping officials to restore his eligibility so he can resume his athletic career.

As I explained in this Philosophy in Action Radio discussion of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, the government has no business banning performance-enhancing drugs. Moreover, the case for a ban in in private sports leagues is remarkably weak. That’s here:

Alas, the problem for Armstrong is that his years of vehement denials of using performance-enhancing drugs, if admitted to be false, would embroil him in major legal troubles. The concern is not merely unjust prosecution by the government. His contracts with sponsors depended on his not using performance-enhancing drugs, and as the the article explains, some sponsors are seeking to recoup millions. Moreover — and this is what I find so morally distasteful — he might have ill-gotten gains from libel lawsuits too:

Armstrong is also facing two other civil lawsuits, one that involves the Dallas-based insurance company SCA Promotions, which is trying to recoup at least $5 million it covered when Armstrong won multiple Tours.

The company withheld that $5 million bonus from Armstrong after he won the 2004 Tour because of doping accusations that surfaced in the book “L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong,” which was published in France. Armstrong sued the company, and the case was settled for $7.5 million.

Armstrong is also being sued by the British newspaper The Sunday Times over the settlement of a libel case in which the newspaper paid Armstrong nearly $500,000.

I don’t fault Armstrong for doping, nor for lying about that to a quasi-governmental agency. However, if he sued people for millions for telling the truth about his doping… well, that’s remarkably sleazy. Even if he felt backed into a corner, that’s no excuse for abusing the law in order to intimidate people into silence.

When faced with such difficult circumstances, the moral person changes course: he admits what he did openly, he defends himself by explaining his reasons, and he advocates for changes in the law. He does not sacrifice others by violating their rights. To do that means sliding rapidly down a very dangerous and degrading slippery slope. That slippery slope doesn’t just destroy a person’s character, but also undermines any capacity of mine to admire his achievements.

I really, really, really hope that that’s not what we’re seeing from Lance Armstrong now.

Oct 302012

On July 13, 2012, Rand Simberg (an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute) wrote a blog post critical of Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann and his work on global warming: “The Other Scandal In Unhappy Valley“.

Mann subsequently demanded that CEI retract the post and apologize for it.

CEI declined.  CEI general counsel Sam Kazman wrote:

Shortly after that post was published in mid-July, CEI removed two sentences that it regarded as inappropriate.  However, we view the post as a valid commentary on Michael Mann’s research…

And regardless of how one views Mann’s work, his threatened lawsuit is directly contrary to First Amendment law regarding public debate over controversial issues.  Michael Mann may believe we face a global warming threat, but his actions represent an unfounded attempt to freeze discussion of his views.

In short, we’re not retracting the piece, and we’re not apologizing for it.

In response, Mann filed a lawsuit against CEI and Rand Simberg, as well as National Review and columnist Mark Steyn (who quoted portions of Simberg’s piece).

CEI has stated they will defend their “First Amendment rights“.  They’ve also posted their legal defense of Simberg’s blog post.

CEI is accepting donations to help them on this issue and their other work.  I’ve gladly donated.

(BTW, their website notes, “CEI is a non-partisan, educational and research institute operating under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. CEI accepts no government grants or contracts, nor do we have an endowment. Contributions to our efforts are tax-deductible.”)

If you want to support CEI, you can donate here.

I’ll also be staying tuned for updates on Rand Simberg’s blog, Transterrestrial Musings, and will pass them along as appropriate.

[Crossposted from GeekPress.]

Preliminary Thoughts on Defamation

 Posted by on 16 October 2012 at 12:00 pm  Defamation, Free Speech, Justice, Law, Rights
Oct 162012

Last week, I was chatting with my friend Santiago about the validity of defamation laws. Just to get everyone on the same page, Wikipedia summarizes defamation as follows:

Defamation — also called calumny, vilification, traducement, slander (for transitory statements), and libel (for written, broadcast, or otherwise published words) — is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation a negative or inferior image.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because I have a question on it in the Philosophy in Action Queue that I’d like to answer sooner rather than later. Here’s my current thinking on the matter, and I’d be interested in people’s thoughts in response.

I can understand that a person might be deeply distraught to be harassed by people telling bald-faced lies about him, particularly when that costs him well-earned business. I can understand the desire to recover damages for those losses. However, even if a person should be able to do that, I’m doubtful that defamation should be a legally actionable tort in a free society. Why?

First, defamation laws are too often used as a weapon to silence criticism — meaning, to violate free speech rights. If a person dislikes the criticisms of others — even if those criticisms are completely justified by the facts — he can can sue (or threaten to sue) others into silence. Alas, I have personal experience with such abuses. The cost in time, money, and anxiety of defending yourself against a false claim of defamation is ginormous.

The fact that defamation lawsuits — or the threat thereof — silence speech important for living life should be deeply troubling. People should be free to speak out about their experiences with incompetent doctors, shady contractors, dishonest businesses, and the like without fear of legal reprisals. Such speech is critical to living life well, yet under defamation laws, people engage in such speech at their peril.

Second, if a person unjustly attacks your reputation, defending yourself is almost always pretty easy. You simply have to say that the person is mistaken or lying, then state the facts. (Many staunch defenders of defamation laws are unwilling to do that, I’ve found: they see themselves as above any such explanations to the unwashed masses.) You can also ask forums hosting the defamatory speech to remove it or not permit more of it. Sure, some people will believe the lies, but most people worth knowing or dealing with will not just swallow them. Reasonable people will listen to you. I know that from far too much personal experience too.

Third, notwithstanding those practical conerns, the critical question about the validity of defamation laws concerns the nature and scope of rights. To wit: Does a person have a right to a factually accurate reputation?

A person’s reputation is the sum of the judgments that others make of him: it’s “the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something.” As such, a person cannot be entitled to a certain reputation by right. A person can influence his reputation by his words and deeds, but it’s not his property because ultimately, a person’s reputation consists of judgments in the minds of others. It’s their property, in fact.

Certainly, some people believe ridiculous claims about me — yet they’re not violating my rights in doing so. They’re just jerks or chumps, but hey, that’s their right. I don’t have a right to anyone’s good opinion, even if that’s what I deserve morally. People are entitled to believe whatever they damn well please — and, I think, to say pretty much whatever they damn well please too. Yes, that speech might do me damage, but so does the speech of pastors and politicians.

Ultimately, I don’t see any basis for claims of a right to reputation. Hence, at least right now, I don’t see that defamation laws can be justified.


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