Years ago, when I was a first-year law student, I took a class on Constitutional Law. It’s not actually correct to say I “took” it. This was a mandatory course that gave me the playbook for my profession. If everything I needed to know was learned in kindergarten, everything I needed to know in order to be a good lawyer was learned in that class. I think I got a B+ instead of an A, a slight deduction likely due to that time I wrote about Roe v. Wade being a “stupid decision” in one of my exam essays.

But I digress.

One of my favorite parts of Con Law was learning about defamation. While I didn’t go on to specialize in that particular field, I was fascinated by how an entire branch of jurisprudence existed to deal with damage to something as intangible — yet profoundly valuable — as a reputation. We all remember what Shakespeare had Cassio say about it in Othello: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” That, of course, presumes that you have a reputation that can be damaged.

Which brings me to what happened this week on Sunday morning TV. George Stephanopoulos, who has tried to make us think he’s a journalist when he’s simply a more respectable version of Bill Clinton’s hatchet man from his “War Room” days, was interviewing South Carolina Representative Nancy Mace on World News Sunday. He pretended that he had empathy for Mace’s ordeal as a rape victim, but he was really using the interview to go after Donald Trump. Stephanopoulos described the former president as a “convicted rapist,” and tried to get Mace to explain why a victim of sexual abuse would ever support a man who was, as he continued to state numerous times, a “convicted rapist.”

To her credit, Mace fought back and put the interviewer on the offensive by suggesting how repellent it was that a man would taunt a rape victim for political advantage. And it was. But it didn’t end there. Trump clearly saw the interview, and his team announced its intention to sue Stephanopoulos for defamation. Start popping the popcorn, with extra butter.

Most people, even those without law degrees, know about the New York Times v. Sullivan case which set out the standard for defamation against a public figure. While Joe and Jane Schmo can sue someone who makes a false statement by showing simple negligence, a public person needs to prove that the defendant had what is called “actual malice” which includes reckless disregard for the truth.

For example, if I believed that Mary down the street was having an affair because I saw her at the Olive Garden with a strange man, and then sent a chain email about it to our mutual friends, I could be found liable and forced to buy her a lifetime supply of endless salad and breadsticks if I was merely negligent in sending out that blast. But if Mary were a public figure, she’d have to prove that I actually knew that the man eating the rubbery chicken cutlet was her cousin Gino from Palermo, but still spread the adultery rumor.

And then there is this: if Mary was well known around town as a woman who was incredibly free with her bingo card, she’d have a hard time getting me to pay up even if she was a public figure. That’s because you need to prove damages, namely, that you sustained harm to your reputation. If you don’t have a good reputation to begin with, you’ll be hard pressed to say that you suffered any significant loss. Or as Dorothy Parker once wrote, you can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think. Or something like that.

I’m pretty sure the Stephanopoulos crew will try to defend themselves against the Trump lawsuit by alleging that even if George is guilty of malice in continuously calling the ex-president a “convicted rapist,” he isn’t liable for damages because Trump’s reputation is in the gutter. Of course, the plaintiff could come right back and say that one of the major reasons it’s in the gutter is because of the kind of treatment he’s gotten from people like Stephanopoulos and the media in general. No matter how many times we see that Access Hollywood tape, and no matter how many times they replay that clip of him calling Mexicans “rapists and murderers,” there are a lot of people who will persist in believing that Trump has been under attack by his enemies for a very long time. And those prosecutions, at least one of them brought by a woman with a fairly tawdry reputation of her own, add to the patina of victim.

Personally, I think George is in some hot water, or as a Philadelphia lawyer would say, hot wooder. He either knew, or should have known, that Trump was never convicted of rape. He was never convicted of anything. The E. Jean Carroll case was a civil matter, and you can’t be convicted of rape in a civil proceedings. Strike one. Also, there has been ample evidence that Trump was found not to have raped E. Jean Carroll. Strike Two. And if that wasn’t enough, and even if E. Jean Carroll were a credible witness in a civil proceeding, she would never be able to prove that she was a victim of rape in a criminal proceeding. Strike Three.

I think that we need to be very careful when we start saying things about people we don’t like. It’s not that we have to curate every tweet and facebook posting, but when it comes to accusing people of the most heinous of crimes, we might want to think twice. Even people who never got their good conduct badge from the Boy Scouts.

Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61

8 thoughts on “Christine Flowers: Reputations still matter”

  1. Someone needs to do a documentary on Stephanopoulos’ work in running the “war room” for the Clintons – and let’s not forget James Carville’s work as well. The fact that the “me too” movement never confronted them about it told me that “me too” was a movement that was a mile wide and an inch deep.

  2. I’m proud of Nancy Mace and how she handled this Greek garden gnome’s low blows in that interview.
    Her strength, courage and resolve not to be humiliated by this troll on national TV was impressive.
    Is there any depth of slime gutter that a liberal political pundit won’t do the backstroke in?
    I hope Trump’s legal team makes his life stressful.

  3. Christine, like most Trump apologists will practically do back-flips to defend the monstrous sociopath and his minions. However, unlike most MAGAS, Christine doesn’t really like the chronic liar very much. So instead, she finds a way to attack someone who doesn’t share her political leanings (Stephanopolous) and gain points with her disgusting MAGA friends Like Dawn Stensland and Mary Walter. Let’s just be candid. Trump is a monster. He has always been a monster. He is a monster with everyone from gigantic banks all the way down to the mom and pop vendors he has habitually ripped off. He is well known to be a monster to women. Did he rape E. Jean Carroll? Probably. He definitely sexually assaulted her. Approximately 25 other women have accused him of some sort of sexual assault. And this goes back to the 70’s so Dawn Stensland’s moronic claim that it only happened when he put an “R” after his name holds as much water as her husbands excuses when he tried to ruin his co-worker’s career after his affair with her while Dawn was pregnant. (Birds of a feather) Even Trumps 1st wife (the one he cheated on with Marla) said in a sworn deposition that he raped her. The Access Hollywood tape is clear proof of what Trump believes is ok to do as he bragged about it to Billy Bush. He also bragged to Howard Stern how as the owner of the Miss Universe Pageant he could just walk into the dressing rooms of teenage girls (Yes. girls. Not women) while they were naked. But people like Christine and her heinous sistren like Stensland and Walter think it’s more important to defend the ever-lying sociopathic Trump just to “stick it to libs” like Stephanopolous. Yes. Trump is a serial assaulter who openly brags about his exploits and it would be an easy assumption that Stensland, Walter nor Flowers would EVER leave their daughter (if they had one) alone with him. No normal, thinking person would. Donald Trump is a chronic liar. He is a thief. He is a sociopath. He is a narcissist. He is arrogant. He is hateful. He is a blowhard. And worst of all, he is an actual danger to the country and all of its principles. But let’s pillory Stephanopolous over semantics. This is the world in which Christine lives. Facts are maybe a distant 2nd place. Nuance? forget it. Christine is completely color blind when it comes to gray areas. Priests that rape children? They will barely register on Christine’s radar. But question a Republican? Well, that’s a sin from which you can never redeem yourself. Just imagine if Tara Reade endorsed Biden and Stephanopolous questioned her in the exact same way. Do you think we would have heard a peep out of Christine or her hate based friends? We all know the answer to that one.

      1. We can all assume that since all you have is ad hominem, you have no counterpoint because what I wrote is 100% accurate.

        1. That’s not true, although I do recognize some of your argument.
          Your attacks are too personal for me to verify (Dawn / Larry, etc.).
          I just don’t have the time. I think George Porgie took a cheap shot and he was purposely and legally wrong in his assessment of Trump’s status.
          You did verify that one of my reasons for hating him is misogyny.
          I guess you hate Bill Clinton and Joe Biden too (?).

          1. Bill Clinton’s personal behavior was heinous. As effective a politician as he was, I would never want him near any female who couldn’t easily defend herself. The allegation(s) against Joe Biden are very possibly untrue and even if true are in no way comparable to those of Trump. You need to “verify” the Larry and Dawn allegations? What Larry did is well documented and he admitted to his actions. He is also a convicted felon because of them. Dawn did interviews about it and somehow she still overwhelming fawns over the orange serial cheater, liar and sexual assaulter. And I would assert the same thing about you that I accuse Christine Dawn and Mary of. If George questioned Tara Reade the EXACT same way about Biden or another liberal you don’t like, you would say NOTHING. This is all about political agenda.

  4. That’s where you’re wrong, Peg. If George pressed Reade as to why she supported Biden, saying ‘a CONVICTED rapist and child molester’ (without proof or legal truth), I would also call him out on it, but your straw man argument would never happen with George or most of MSM political pundits.
    What you can’t separate is that if I agree with CF on a topic, you take it as a personal affront as support to your enemy.
    While we’re on it: why didn’t Biden get the same level of scrutiny about Reade’s claims that Trump got with Carrol, or Kavanaugh with Blasey Ford?

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