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Libel in Fact Magazine: Defending Free Speech

Free speech as a defense against judging another person critically

The freedom to assess a leader's personality and to communicate that assessment is a precious liberty. In the United States and in other free nations, the government and legal systems allow people wide leeway to make critical judgments and to express them -- including judgments of political figures. The strength and legitimacy of a government is reflected, in part, in the freedom people have to say what they think.

I have been examining personality judgments made during the 1964 US Presidential election (see my rationale). In particular, I have described the accusations leveled by Fact magazine that the election of Senator Barry Goldwater, then running for President on the Republican ticket, would endanger the nation owing to his paranoia and unpredictable aggressiveness.

Fact's depiction of the Senator resulted in a libel suit that came to trial in May, 1968. At the time, Ralph Ginzburg, the publisher of Fact, testified that he had became troubled after watching Mr. Goldwater win the 1964 Republican Party nomination. Mr. Ginzburg had returned to his office the next day, he testified, and said to his managing editor, Warren Boroson, "Warren, you know I'm scared because this guy doesn't seem all right."

"There were lots of people shook up...," Ginzburg continued, "...over the possibility Goldwater might become President."

In Mr. Ginzburg's further descriptions of how the special issue of Fact magazine came about, he testified in a lower Manhattan courtroom that he had intended to "inquire of every psychiatrist in the country" whether the Senator was fit for the presidency. He further asked Mr. Boroson to collect "every scrap of information in the public record relevant to a psycho-biography of Mr. Goldwater."

Defending himself as a journalist in the muckracking tradition, Mr. Ginzburg said:

"To the extent that the feelings of Barry Goldwater, the man, were hurt, I'm sorry. To the extent that I may have contributed to the defeat of Barry Goldwater, the political candidate, I am proud."

Mr. Ginzburg's argument provides an historical example of peoples' willingness and tendency to scrutinize and to criticize their leaders. Indeed, if we did not carefully examine and think about who we wanted to lead us, we would put ourselves at considerable risk. Sometimes, however, our judgments of others can become extreme. Ginzburg characterized the tactics of Goldwater's followers as "totalitarian" and "fascist."

Mr. Robb, the prosecuting attorney, asked Ginzburg, "Did you intend to say that Mr. Goldwater was a Nazi or a fascist?" "No," replied Mr. Ginzburg, and later, "I meant to say he was as much a danger to the United States as Hitler was to Germany."

Although Mr. Ginzburg's description of Senator Goldwater took place in 1964, strong judgments of politicians' characters are still made today.

Human beings judge the character of their leaders: That is a constant across times and nations.

The Goldwater v. Ginzburg lawsuit tested the limits of how extreme a judgment could become of a presidential candidate and whether that judgment could legally be expressed in the United States. On the one side were the virtues of free speech; on the other, the need for government to protect the reputations of its leaders from defamation of character.

More about our tendency to analyze our leaders next week.

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The quotes, "There lots of people shook up...," "Warren, you know I'm scared," and "...every scrap," " matter how severe," "To the extent that the feelings..." were from Burks, E. C. (1968, May 22). Ginzburg defends Goldwater Story. New York Times, p. 44.

Copyright (c) 2010 by John D. Mayer