The National Jewish Democratic Council may have bit off more than it could chew with its allegations about Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apologized for making similar charges that the casino mogul profited from prostitution in his Macau property in China. But the NJDC has yet to back off on its attack, and the result is that Adelson has filed a $60 million libel lawsuit against the group.
Optimistic Jewish Democrats may hope the group will be able to raise some money from liberals who hate the billionaire who has contributed record amounts to Republican candidates as well as many Jewish philanthropic causes. But the problem with the NJDC posing as a martyr being harassed by the deep-pocketed conservative is that their behavior has been indefensible. Disagree with Adelson’s stands on the issues and his taste in candidates if you like, but calling someone a pimp without a shred of proof is not the stuff of First Amendment poster children. Proving libel is difficult, but on the face of it, the NJDC is going to be hard-pressed to prove its mudslinging wasn’t knowingly false as well as malicious.
The NJDC put a brave face on the mess they talked themselves into with the following statement:
We will not be bullied into submission, and we will not be silenced by power. This is not Putin’s Russia, and in America, political speech regarding one of the most well-known public figures in our country is a fundamental right. One would think the person making greatest use of the Citizens United ruling would understand this. To be sure, referencing mainstream press accounts examining the conduct of a public figure and his business ventures—as we did—is wholly appropriate. Indeed, it is both an American and a Jewish obligation to ask hard questions of powerful individuals like Mr. Adelson, just as it is incumbent upon us to praise his wonderful philanthropic endeavors.
We know that we were well within our rights, and we will defend ourselves against this SLAPP suit as far and as long as necessary. We simply will not be bullied, and we will not be silenced.
They are right that political speech is protected, a point that the group — like other opponents of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — often forgets. But there is a not so fine line between criticizing a public figure and spreading allegations that he is involved in prostitution. There was plenty of room for them to take shots at Adelson without using a palpably false smear. Even billionaires have a right to protect themselves against that sort of libel, and it will now be up to the NJDC to wise up and make an apology or face some serious economic consequences.
Even more to the point, the NJDC shouldn’t be dragging Judaism into this sordid fight they’ve started. Far from it being a specifically Jewish obligation to raise such issues, there is actually a specific religious prohibition against this sort of libel. Indeed, if there is anything that defines the concept of lashon hara or “evil tongue” — the provision in Jewish religious law against defamatory speech — it is calling a political opponent a pimp. For them to claim there was any such duty to smear him in this manner makes a mockery of Judaism.
Given the egregious nature of the NJDC’s offense, Adelson is well within his rights in pursuing a libel suit. Contrary to the NJDC’s whiny defense, this is not a SLAPP suit intended to silence legitimate or even outlandish political speech. Associating someone with prostitution is simply beyond the pale, even in the nasty world of politics.
That’s a lesson the group is about to learn to its sorrow. Though they may sound tough now, there’s little doubt they will soon be on their knees either begging Adelson to accept an apology or asking a court to let them off only because they didn’t know how false their wild accusations actually were.