Extra Remedies for Libel if the Libeler Chose Target Based on Race, Religion, Sex, Etc.?

This is the theory behind Halftown against BowmanThe suit was filed last week at a New York court of trial. Plaintiffs are Cayuga Nation Indian Tribe officials: Clint Halftown, the controversial federal representative of the Nation, is a member the tribal government and Mark Lincoln, the superintendent of police for the tribe (although he is not an Indian member). Charles Bowman is being accused of insulting them with various allegations of violence and misconduct. This seems to be a fairly normal claim for public officials libel (although plaintiffs could win if they prove that the statements were knowingly false or recklessly defamatory).

But Halftown is also suing Bowman for violating N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 79-n, which provides for civil remedies against

[a]No person will intentionally pick a person to harm, causes property damage, causes death, physical injury, or threatens another person, nor summon a peace officer, police officer, or security officer, without any basis to suspect that there is a violation or threat imminent to property or persons.

A belief in or perception of race, color or national origin or ancestry or gender or religion or religious practice or age in part or whole [60 or above], disability or sexual orientation of a person ….

The theory they have is that libel refers to “harm”, which seems plausible. However, if the statute is correct then it would allow additional remedies beyond those normally available in libel actions.

  1. A statute gives the court authority to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs. This is something that they would not normally receive in libel actions.
  2. This statute permits injunctions to be issued “enjoining or restraining any future violation”, without the requirement of proof that any individual has been hurt or damaged by them. Although some New York courts allow injunctions for libel in certain cases, others doubt them. The statute may push a court toward granting an order.
  3. While the statute gives the Attorney General power to sue to stop violations, to my knowledge this action has not been brought.

It will be interesting to see whether the court would allow the special § 79-n claim to go forward. It is possible that it might be brought up in many cases. If it does, it could come up in claims that the plaintiff was targeted for being a male (as in #TheyLied sexual misconduct claims).

Thanks to the Media Law Resource Center MediaLawDaily for the pointer.