On November 6, Tufts student Camilo A. Caballero wrote an op-ed in the Tufts Daily, the student newspaper for Tufts University, demanding that the university remove former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci from the board of advisors of its School of Law and Diplomacy. Scaramucci responded by threatening to sue for libel if the paper didn’t retract what it wrote. Is there libel here?
The Tufts Op-Ed is inflammatory
Caballero’s editorial, which is as of now still posted on the Tufts Daily site, is pretty shrill in parts. Here an excerpt of the most impassioned passage:
However, there sits on the Board of Advisors of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts a man whose career and ideals are diametrically opposed to those ideas and who sullies the vision of the University.
This is Anthony Scaramucci, a man who began his infamously short career as the White House communications director by uttering profanity-laced comments on national news outlets, the man who sold his soul in contradiction to his own purported beliefs for a seat in that White House and a man who makes his Twitter accessible to friends interested in giving comfort to Holocaust deniers.
A man who is irresponsible, inconsistent, an unethical opportunist and who exuded the highest degree of disreputability should not be on the Fletcher Board. The Board of Advisors plays a critical role in building the spirit of our school and also, in more practical terms, board members define and oversee our school’s operations.
Scaramucci has, in his career and actions, demonstrated nothing that would align his values with those of the Fletcher School. His presence on the board instead places the credibility of Fletcher at risk.
So why should Scaramucci be on the board? Nothing in his past provides a valid reason, unless a decision has been made to enshrine the power of money over the power of values. If his credentials lie in the billions of dollars he made on Wall Street, then we have, as a school, abandoned our principles and vision. If Scaramucci can have a seat on our board, then Martin Shkreli, “the most hated man in America,” is worthy of an invitation to sit as well.
Here’s how I judge. I learned several principles as an analyst making public statements and later in my time on this blog. One is that you must get the facts straight. Second is that you must back up your opinions. And the third is that you must keep the facts and opinions separate. (I also learned to criticize actions, not the people who made them — avoiding ad hominem attacks — but in this case Caballero can’t obey that principle, since his purpose is to attack the fitness of Scaramucci.)
So let’s take this apart. What are the facts?
- Anthony Scaramucci sits on the Board of Advisors of the Fletcher School. True.
- He utter profanity-laced comments on national news outlets. True. Ryan Lizza published them in The New Yorker.
- He “makes his Twitter accessible to friends interested in giving comfort to Holocaust deniers.” True, but misleading. An employee of his Scaramucci Post put out a Twitter poll asking how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust; Scaramucci says he was unaware of the activity at the time.
- He made billions of dollars on Wall Street. True.
What are the opinions, and are they defensible?
- His “career and ideals are diametrically opposed to those ideas” of the shining city on a hill. Backed up by the rest of this op-ed.
- He “sullies the vision of the University.” Extreme, in line with the rest of the op-ed.
- He had “an infamously short career as the White House communications director.” He lasted ten days. That’s a record for brevity. I think that qualifies as infamous.
- He sold his soul. Hyperbole. Based on an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. You cannot read this as a purported fact, since selling one’s soul is not actually possible outside of fiction.
- He is “irresponsible, inconsistent, an unethical opportunist and who exuded the highest degree of disreputability.” A matter of opinion. Backed up by the facts cited here.
- He has “demonstrated nothing that would align his values with those of the Fletcher School.” Probably wrong. I’m sure he has demonstrated something.
- “His presence on the board instead places the credibility of Fletcher at risk.” Opinion.
Verdict: this is a screed. But for the most part, it consists of defensible opinions, even if they are stated in the most extreme and inflammatory way possible.
Is it libel?
Scaramucci’s lawyer sent a letter to the Tufts Daily. Here’s part of what it says:
Before Scaramucci pursues such claims, we urge Mr. Caballero and The Tufts Daily to promptly retract several false and defamatory allegations of fact about Mr. Scaramucci, and to issue an apology. In particular, the Article makes the following egregiously false statements attacking Mr. Scaramucci as:
- “A man who is irresponsible, inconsistent, an unethical opportunist and who exuded the highest degree of disreputability.”
- “[a] man who makes his Twitter accessible to friends interested in giving comfort to Holocaust deniers.”
- “the man who sold his soul in contradiction to his own purported beliefs for a seat in that White House.”
- Calling Mr. Scaramucci “unethical” and someone who “cares about gaining attention and nothing more,”
The letter also advances the legal theory that “Under Massachusetts law, even statements that ‘contain some amount of opinion’ are ‘false and defamatory where they refer to lies, backroom deals, conflicts of interest’ and ‘ethics violations,’ as matters of ‘fact.’ ”
This is a stretch. Calling Scarmucci irresponsible, inconsistent, unethical, opportunistic, and disreputable are matters of opinion about his character, not accusations of specific unethical acts. The same goes for selling his soul. It is true that saying that he “cares about gaining attention and nothing more” is clearly false — I’m sure he cares about something else — but it’s hard to credit an entire libel suit based on that single assertion that he’s in it for the publicity. (That statement comes from a second Caballero op-ed mentioned in the same letter.)
In my non-expert legal opinion, the chances of Scaramucci succeeding in a libel suit are low. There are no significant false statements of fact here. This op-ed is nasty, but not libelous.
Is it good writing?
Op-eds in major newspapers don’t read this way. There’s a reason for that.
The job of an op-ed is to persuade. That means that people who disagree with you, or are undecided, need to be able to listen to and believe your arguments.
The more impassioned you get — the more negative adjectives and extreme characterizations you use — the less credible you become. This is my problem with the excessive use of weasel words.
In fact, the more upset you are, the more dispassionately you should write. Let the facts do the work. It’s harder to believe you when you’re ranting.
If you need to write something like this for therapeutic reasons, go ahead. But if you want to publish it — even in the student newspaper — stay clear on the goal, and take out most of the weasel words.