uthor Michael S. Rose has taken some hard hits from critics of his controversial book Goodbye! Good Men!, which alleges that liberal dissenters and homosexual cliques within the Roman Catholic clergy have caused a phony crisis in priestly vocations. But only one critic has driven him to threaten a libel suit: a Michigan Catholic priest named Rob Johansen. Their dispute, which may be headed to court, provides a cautionary tale for the thousands of people who, ignorant of libel law, publish their opinions on the Internet heedless of the serious risks they are running.
Johansen, a theological conservative, was an early and vigorous critic of the Rose book, which he considers to be a sloppy piece of journalism at best, and a tissue of malicious lies at worst. His fierce criticism ("Michael Rose is dishonest and cannot be trusted. ... [Rose] resorts to innuendo: the tactic adopted by liars and rumor-mongers everywhere.") has been featured in at least one magazine, on a nationally syndicated Catholic radio show, in widely circulated e-mails, and, most regularly, on his Internet blogsite.
By August, Rose had had enough. He instructed his lawyer to write to Fr. Johansen and Johansen's bishop, James A. Murray of Kalamazoo, a letter containing a partial listing of Johansen's comments considered "blatantly defamatory" by Rose. The letter accused Johansen of "an obvious effort to intentionally damage and/or ruin Rose's reputation as an author and investigative reporter." The letter asked Johansen to publicly retract two supposedly false claims, and quit publishing commentary concerning Rose's character or literary abilities or face a libel suit.
Johansen went to his blog a sort of running public diary published on the Internet to accuse Rose of trying to intimidate him into silence. Then Johansen went silent on the Rose matter at the orders of Bishop Murray, who instructed him to refrain from further comment until the situation could be sorted out. (When contacted for comment by NRO, Johansen declined.)
When asked why, of all those who have vented in print against Goodbye! Good Men, he singled out Johansen for the lawyer's letter, Rose said the priest is the only critic who "has gone far beyond the bounds of rational criticism." Rose said other publications, such as National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and Crisis, have made negative comments about his work which he doesn't agree with, but which he believes are not legally defamatory.
"Only Johansen's have been of a very personal and obsessive-like nature," Rose says. "None of those publications imputes untrue motives to me, or repeatedly calls or implies that I am a liar who is not to be trusted. None of the other critics evidences any malice toward me."
Why doesn't Rose agree to be a good sport about this matter, and consider Johansen's critiques to be simply part of the cost of doing business as a journalist and controversialist? Because Rose believes Johansen is deliberately trying to destroy his literary career and that the priest could succeed.
Rose makes his living writing for an American Catholic audience, with particular appeal to the conservative subset of the whole. The potential damage to Rose's livelihood from false and defamatory statements circulated in public by a priest, particularly a priest with a following among conservatives, is clear. Now, unless the parties can reach an amicable agreement, a civil court will determine whether Johansen's commentary meets the legal standard of defamation.
The Rose vs. Johansen dispute demonstrates how quickly passionate polemics undertaken by ordinary people on the Internet can unintentionally become a serious legal matter. Sandra Baron, a lawyer and executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York, says amateurs voicing their opinions on the Internet have brought on an "astronomical" rise in civil libel suits in recent years.
"It's obvious that individuals are unaware of the risks of libel and invasion of privacy, and don't realize that what they're saying on these websites could set themselves up for libel lawsuits from individuals and entities from around the world," Baron says. "We've gotten a number of calls here, either by or on behalf of individuals who had no idea that what they were saying on these chat boards and blogs could subject them to litigation."
Professional journalists almost always have one or more courses in libel law as part of their training, and traditional media outlets rely closely on the advice of lawyers to keep themselves from crossing the defamation line. Old media strives to function as a gatekeeper, keeping libelous commentary from being published. In new media, anybody with a computer and online access can say whatever they like, instantly. And when they do, they are no more protected from libel claims than the New York Times.
"Once you publish something, you're a publisher, whether you're a priest, housewife, or shareholder," says Baron. "People need to learn to curb their enthusiasm before they post."
They should also familiarize themselves with the basics of libel law, something that no one outside of journalism and publishing ever had to bother with until the Internet arrived. LRDC offers a bare-bones primer here. The Associated Press Stylebook, which has an updated section on libel law, is a must-have in newsrooms, and probably should be on the desk of every blogger.
Parents should also be aware that they can be held liable for defamatory statements their children make on websites. Says Baron, "If you're going to teach kids how to keyboard, you need to teach them the rules of the road."
One great thing about the Internet is how it allows ordinary citizens to bypass the old-line media, and bring fresh, sometimes-urgent commentary and reporting directly to readers. Yet the temptation all bloggers face is to post first, ask questions later, if at all. As Fr. Rob Johansen is learning, that can be a costly mistake.