In his article criticizing my libel suit against Ralph de Toledano ("Ralph Nader v. the First Amendment," op-ed, Feb. ), Nat Hentoff neglected to declare that he is an absolutist on matters of libel laws-- that is, he does not believe in these laws at all. Had he informed readers of his position, they may have been more alerted to his one-sided description of the case, Nader v. de Toledano.
After Hentoff had written similar articles in the Village Voice on this lawsuit in 1980, I called him to inquire why he felt it necessary to write a brief for the defendant. In the course of our discussion, I learned of his absolutist stand. To test its outer limits I offered him this hypothetical: suppose a Walter Cronkite said on the evening network news that Nat Hentoff had been a convicted felon when he knew such an assertion to be false, but refused to retract the statement on a later program. Would Hentoff sue for libel? His answer was no; he would rather respond in the general media, despite some dramatic dissimilarities in audiences.
I then asked him: what about the restrictions on a libeled citizen who did not write a regular column as he did? The issue was joined at that point. For Hentoff declined to recognize that the exercise of citizen rights can be chilled, or stilled, if powerful corporate or political adversaries (and their allies in the media) could freely slander citizens who dared to speak out.
Very strong libel laws--as some countries have--can and do constrain the free speech rights of all but the most entrenched powers. In contrast, libel laws in the United States make it very difficult for public figures to prevail. These laws strike a balance that preserves more of the First Amendment rights in practice at the grass roots.
In his views, Hentoff fails to accord weight to the fact that most people do not have equal access to the media, and that people do not have equal political or economic power. As a consequence, he rejects the right of all people to have some recourse against serious, knowingly false libel. Rather than liberate citizen expression from chains, his ideology would permit the inequities of power to freeze the exercise of free speech all too often. Hentoff would learn from studying, for example, how a company town works.
His article also contains basic factual errors. The Senate subcommittee chaired by Abraham Ribicoff did not claim that I had not made my case against the Corvair. Its report explicitly stated: "we express no opinion on the technical questions relating to the ultimate safety of the car." The issue that the report examined was restricted to whether GM misled the subcommittee about the safety of the car. The subcommittee concluded that it was not misled, though, curiously, the legislators refused to disclose the transcribed interrogations of GM officials on which their conclusions were based.
Anyone remaining to be convinced of the engineering hazards of the Corvair can read our reply to the subcommittee's report (printed in the March 27-28, 1973, issue of the Congressional Record) which demonstrates that GM's own confidential proving ground reports and other company data are consistent with our contentions. These were also confirmed later in undisputed detail by former GM vice president John DeLorean in the book, "On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors" (pages 53 to 57). Finally, contrary to any ambiguity implied in Hentoff's piece, the subcommittee pointedly asserted that my charges "were made in good faith."
For the defendant to write that Sen. Ribicoff said just the opposite of what the senator actually said is to use the senator's name, wrongfully, to buttress the defendant's libelous purpose. His charge of falsification before a Senate committee is demonstrably and knowingly false and, therefore, actionable under the law.
Hentoff omitted other pertinent facts--including the fact that the defendant stated, in one of his columns, that he would welcome a lawsuit. It is puzzling why Hentoff would want to deny him that opportunity.