CBS Is Said to Fear Unusual Legal Challenge in ’60 Minutes’ Case
At the heart of CBS’s decision to cancel a “60 Minutes” interview with a tobacco company executive last weekend was the network’s fear that it would be sued under a legal theory that had never before been used against a news organization, legal experts said yesterday. An old principle of common law, tortious interference typically occurs when a company or an individual offers another company or individual some inducement to break a contract with a third company or individual. Most such lawsuits stem from cases in which a company executive has broken a contract to jump to another company for more money, law professors said. Sometimes the principle is used when a former employee goes to a new company and breaks a promise not to divulge his former employer’s trade secrets. The theory was successfully employed in the mid-1980’s, after Texaco broke up a deal between the Pennzoil Company and Getty Oil. So far, experts say they know of no case in which the theory has been used to threaten a news organization trying to interview someone who had signed a confidentiality agreement with a former employer. These are the crucial points in the case: to prove tortious interference, one has to convince a jury not only that there was a contract, but also that the interloper knew about the contract and used improper inducements to get the person under contract to break the agreement. First Amendment experts, law professors and tort lawyers were divided yesterday on whether CBS had made the right call. While most agreed that the tobacco company might have theoretical grounds for such a lawsuit, they questioned what damages the company could prove it had suffered if the interview had aired. William Bennett Turner, a First Amendment lawyer who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, said the idea that the tobacco company could win such a suit was far from fanciful, especially because the offer to pay for the source’s legal defense could be seen as an inducement. “If you are allowed to publish what a legislature says you can’t have, I don’t see why the tobacco company’s interest is more important than the Government’s,” said Charles S. Sims, a First Amendment lawyer in New York. One problem for CBS is that there are few guideposts in the current law to steer them, said Henry R. Kaufman, director of the Libel Defense Resource Center. “There is very little case law out there,” he said, adding, “It hasn’t been answered whether it would be an adequate defense to say that our purpose was to gather newsworthy information.” A professor of law at Georgetown University, said any judge who looked at a lawsuit like the one CBS feared would have given heavy weight to the constitutional protections for the press. Some First Amendment lawyers said CBS’s decision was surprising, because the network had many defenses and it would be difficult for a company to win damages because of negative publicity about tobacco.
What Makes the Stanford Rape Case So Unusual
Despite widespread efforts to understand sexual assault, there’s no official clearinghouse that attempts to track its prevalence. It’s impossible to know how many sexual assaults go unreported. The 23-year-old victim in a sexual assault case that has touched off a national uproar did speak out. The victim’s statement to Brock Turner, the former Stanford student convicted of sexually assaulting her, has been viewed online millions of times since last week. The case, which resulted in a six-month jail sentence and probation for Turner, has touched off furor among those who say the punishment is too light, and sparked vigorous debate about the intersection of sexual assault, privilege, and justice. In March, Turner was convicted of three felony counts: sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and assault with an intent to commit rape. If it’s rare for someone to report a sexual assault in the first place, it’s even more unusual for that report to result in a conviction. In the vast majority of sexual assaults the perpetrators never serve time in prison-97 percent of cases, an analysis of Justice Department data by the anti-sexual violence advocacy group RAINN concludes. Another unusual component of the case at Stanford: There were eyewitnesses. Even in instances when victims agree to go through a SART exam, the medical exam that’s conducted after an alleged sexual assault, it doesn’t always yield usable information. “He was intoxicated, and he was a really high-achieving man. Well, that describes every rape or sexual assault at Stanford. If that’s ‘unusual,’ what it would mean is that we could never prosecute a sexual assault on Stanford campus and expect to get a sentence. That’s why I’ve called this a dangerous precedent.” Stanford students are already skeptical that their institution takes sexual assaults seriously. In a university survey last year, fewer than half of undergraduate men at Stanford said they believed it was “Very likely” the school would hold accountable someone found responsible for sexual assault. In the debate over campus sexual assault in recent years, many people have advocated for reducing university involvement and automatically enlisting the help of law enforcement from the moment a crime is reported. “But there’s a nerve that’s being pushed. Here we’ve got proof, but we’re being told, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter.’ Certain people who participate in our system of justice don’t understand sexual violence. They don’t understand violence against women, and they aren’t able to appropriately interpret the law in a way that protects women. The reason this case has really resonated for people is she did everything right. She was supposed to get justice. And she didn’t.”