Threats to file idiotic lawsuits happen all the time. They often result from anger, pressure, helplessness and bravado. Then the would-be plaintiff meets with a lawyer who explains that there’s no case here, and the whole thing goes away.
Such a sequence appears not to have unfolded in the case of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s frivolous legal rumblings over Fox News. As discussed widely last month, following the Jan. 7 terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, Fox News on various programs declared that various parts of Paris — and other European cities — had become so-called “no-go zones.” Those zones were where Muslims dominated and Sharia governed the community’s actions. The reporting turned out to be false, as Fox News conceded in several on-air apologies and corrections. (CNN, too, partook in the chatter to a much lesser degree).
Hidalgo, however, wasn’t impressed with Fox News’s corrective hygiene. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, she said, “When we’re insulted, and when we’ve had an image, then I think we’ll have to sue, I think we’ll have to go to court, in order to have these words removed. The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced.”
That was almost three weeks ago. The New York Times is now reporting that Hidalgo is likely to follow through on her threat in a Paris court this week. The Times cast the news in classic on-this-hand, on-the-other-hand terms:
Some interpreted the legal action as an empty gesture calculated to raise her profile since, at least in the United States, such a complaint is unlikely to go far, given First Amendment protections.
But her response, observers say, reflects the new swagger of a sometimes hesitant and soft-spoken but ambitious politician who, after being elected mayor in March, has been pushed into the spotlight by one of the country’s bloodiest terrorist attacks in recent memory.
A word to these “observers”: There’s no “swagger” in filing pointless lawsuits that express contempt for freedom of the press. There’s merely “pettiness” in filing pointless lawsuits that express contempt for freedom of the press.
Yet the great “swagger” of Hidalgo could well backfire on her and her fellow citoyens. Should she proceed with this civil action, she will bring international attention to her case against Fox News. And that case against Fox News, mind you, appears to be that “the honor of Paris has been prejudiced.” Shorter version: Fox News defamed Paris.
As this blog explained last month, First Amendment law in the United States allows people and news operations to say anything they want about a municipality. A famous Supreme Court case delivered this bit of wisdom on the topic: “For good reason, no court of last resort in this country has ever held, or even suggested, that prosecutions for libel on government have any place in the American system of jurisprudence.”
Every day that a French court takes seriously this joke of a complaint will bring more attention to the country’s sketchy protections for freedom of expression.
In the aftermath of Hidalgo’s threat last month, Fox News called any lawsuit under these circumstances “misplaced.” Expect harsher language if Hidalgo follows through.