Hey Breitbart — Libel is what you did to Shirley Sherrod and helped do to ACORN, NOT what I did to you…
WITH IMPORTANT UPDATE — SEE BELOW
Andrew Breitbart — aka The Notorious P.I.G. — took time out of his important work tracking down pictures of Anthony Weiner’s penis this week, to accuse me of libeling him on Facebook. On June 4, amid Weiner-related tweets and other bits of brilliance (limited to 140 characters because that’s the attention span of this alcohol-addled hack), Piggie (or Pig Poppa, take your pick), suggested that I was guilty of libelous claims about him: specifically that I had accused him of burning a cross on the lawn of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity at Tulane (where he was a member) back in 1989.
But in fact, I made no such accusation. I referenced the cross-burning in a Facebook update, in which I jokingly suggested that given Breitbart’s own standard of proof and evidence (as in the James O’Keefe ACORN videos, or the Shirley Sherrod case), we should just go ahead and pronounce him guilty of the cross-burning, even though I noted that there was NO evidence of his involvement. In other words, I was lampooning him for his own slipshod techniques of investigation and accusation, not literally alleging that he was to blame. No rational person could have read what I wrote and thought to themselves, “Oh My God, Andrew Breitbart burned a cross at Tulane, and this I know because Tim Wise said so.” Even someone like Breitbart, whose synapses have been so utterly atrophied by alcohol (he admits to his boozing in his recently released memoir, so this isn’t libelous either), cannot read what I wrote to suggest a literal accusation of Klan-like terrorism on his part.
As you read my original comments, and the threaded ones that came after, it’s pretty obvious that everyone on the thread is commenting in the same vein: making fun of him, but not seriously accusing him of anything sinister in terms of the cross-burning. Now, true enough, I said some unkind things, about wanting to see him destroyed (politically of course), and lose credibility to such an extent that he was reduced to begging on the street. Was that nice of me? No, and truthfully, I don’t really want to see anyone homeless and starving, as I intemperately suggested; so for the tone of those suggestions, and their content, I actually am sorry. But those things, as mean-spirited as they may well be, are not libelous. The only question, legally, is whether I libeled him re: the cross-burning.
So here are the things I said on facebook, all of which are quite transparently clear in terms of what I am saying:
On May 31, at 5:47 p.m., I wrote in an update:
“Tim Wise wonders if Andrew Breitbart was involved in the cross-burning at Tulane in 1989, in the front yard of HIS fraternity. I know one thing: the official position of his frat was that the event ‘might not be racial,’ and they went to great lengths to cover up what happened. I think, based on his own standard of evidence that we should just declare him guilty now and be done with it…I want that bastard destroyed. Now.”
Two minutes later, one of my Facebook friends wrote:
“What? Andrew Breitbart burned a cross at Tulane in 1989? Psst Pass it on. Two can play this Shirley Sherrod game.”
Three minutes later — five minutes after the original update — I noted, responding to the friend’s statement:
“…exactly Ebony…I have no reason to think he did it, but he was a member of the frat where the cross was burned after a bid was given to a black student for the first time, and he said nothing publicly to condemn the act, so I assume he approved of it. Seems fair. We had a press conference at the time, and he could have come to add his voice to the condemnation but he didn’t, so as far as I’m concerned he’s as guilty as whoever burned it…”
Now, am I accusing him here? No. I actually say I have no reason to think he did it. But it’s true that he said nothing publicly to condemn it at the time, and I am arguing that morally speaking, he is every bit as culpable as whoever actually did the deed. Silence gives consent: it’s an old maxim actually. Piggie had every opportunity to say something. I know. I was there. I organized, along with students from the black student organization (African American Congress of Tulane, or ACT), a press conference once the cross-burning became known. Chet Givens, who was the president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity asked to speak at the press conference and of course we said yes. No other fraternity member said a word publicly, and no more than a few even attended the press conference. Breitbart was not there as I recall, and said nothing, just as I alleged.
And indeed, the cross-burning was covered up for nearly two weeks, by both the administration and the fraternity, the latter of which had no intention of publicly coming forward about the incident, and only did so after reporters at the student paper found out about what had happened. When Givens spoke at the press conference, he certainly condemned the act, but did allow that it wasn’t clear if the incident had even been racial, even though it was acknowledged that a bid had, for the first time, been offered to a black student. His statement wasn’t great, but he did reluctantly offer it.
(UPDATE: I just went back and found the Tulane newspaper article on the press conference, and apparently I was giving Givens too much credit. He and the Delts were even more pathetic than I remembered. Turns out, Givens said: “The delay (in notifying the university about the cross burning) was because I didn’t feel it was racially motivated or a campus issue.” The head of security at the time was especially angered by the Delts’ delay in notifying them, and actually said their delay hampered the investigation.)
What makes the frat’s foot-dragging and failure to go public themselves interesting, is that in his libel-threat tweets, Andrew goes to great lengths to make the point that it was he, The Notorious P.I.G., who actually sponsored the black pledge, whose offer of membership to the Delts appears to have prompted someone to burn the cross in the first place. In other words, a) he has a black friend, whose name he notes in one of the tweets is “Donnell,” and b) he was the guy who more than anyone wanted his black friend in the club. Now, this may well be true. But I gotta say, if an act of racial terror and intimidation were perpetrated against my fraternity and specifically, my good black friend, for whom I had fought so valiantly, I would have been the first person to say something about how horrible the incident was. I would have called my own damned press conference, or at least come to the official one and offered my two cents. The fact that he had tried so hard to get his buddy in the frat and then had nothing to say after this racial incident occurred (and it wasn’t even important enough to include in his recently-released memoir), suggests to me that he was pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. After all, as he admits in that memoir, he was too busy drinking and nearly failing out of school in those days to have paid much attention to anything important. So I wonder how Andrew feels about his “brothers” (and himself) failing to notify campus police, and thereby hampering the investigation of the hate crime aimed at his friend?
Anyway, after that thread comment above, at 5:52, I didn’t say anything else about the cross-burning per se. I did say lots of mean things about wanting his political career to be destroyed, and for him to be penniless, begging and perhaps even dying on the streets. That last part was wrong of me. I don’t really feel that way, as much as I dislike Breitbart personally, and detest and despise him politically. But as mean-spirited as it is, and as much as I regret that tone, saying such things is not libelous. It is not an accusation of anything. And it isn’t like it’s a threat. I didn’t say I wanted to kill him in the streets, or wanted anyone else to do so. I want him politically destroyed, is what I said. Intemperate and even cruel? Yes. Regrettable? Yes, sure. Illegal? Absolutely not, as even someone who barely pulled a C average at Tulane should be able to tell.