We learned this in our libel-law course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:
If you repeat someone else’s libel, you too can be sued for libel.
That doesn’t mean the libel suit has merit or that the person bringing the suit will win. There are lots of legal defenses against the charge that you have damaged someone’s reputation or livelihood. Truth is the best defense, if you can prove it. But even if your report is completely fair and accurate, you may have to spend lots of money on lawyers’ fees to win your case in court (unless you have libel insurance or your publication’s lawyers are ready to back you up).
This is why CultureGrrl has timidly shied away from touching certain hot-button stories, including the New Yorker‘s July 2010 investigaton of Canadian art authenticator Peter Paul Biro, written by David Grann. Grann was sued for libel last June by Biro, along with Condé Nast, which publishes the New Yorker. Biro’s controversial forensic authentication process involves the examination of fingerprints on paintings.
Quoting from Grann’s story and commenting on it has now gotten Art Fag City blogger Paddy Johnson into deep water, along with Gawker, Louise Blouin Media (publisher of ArtInfo) and even the International Council of Museums and Georgia Museum of Art, among those named on Dec. 5 in Biro’s scattershot libel suit (as reported today by Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News Service).
You can see the part about Johnson on P. 40 of the supplemental complaint filed this month by Biro against her and the other new defendants in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. I hope Paddy emerges from this unscathed. Art Fag City is one of the most popular sites in the art blogosphere. Presumably the deep-pocketed Condé Nast is defending this vigorously. A New Yorker victory could float all boats.
Another thing that we learned in libel-law class: You’re safe if you quote from court documents or court proceedings. Biro has now put the entire New Yorker story into the court record, attached to the complaint. You can read it, beginning on P. 45 of the above-linked PDF.