Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Voting Equipment Companies Sue Media Organizations Over Fraud Claims
2. Child Poverty Bills in Congress Address Endemic Crisis
3. Modi Cracks Down on Farmer Protests as Illiberalism Grows in India
Scroll down to read
Voting Equipment Companies Sue Media Organizations Over Fraud Claims
Rudy Giuliani, left and Sidney Powell, center are both named as defendants in Smartmatic’s $2.7 billion lawsuit. Credit: Smartmatic summons
In a watershed moment for the fight against disinformation, voting equipment companies Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic have filed billion-dollar defamation lawsuits against Fox News anchors and Trump attorneys. The companies are seeking redress for misinformation that they say damaged their reputation and “decimated” their business.
Smartmatic has asked for $2.7 billion from Fox News, naming hosts Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and Maria Bartiromo in their suit as well as Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who appeared as guests. Dominion has sued Giuliani and Powell separately for $1.3 billion each. Both companies have also indicated that more cases may be yet to come.
The Fox hosts and Trump attorneys frequently made baseless claims implicating Smartmatic and Dominion in conspiracies to rig the election. In response to the threat of litigation, they now appear to be backtracking. Fox Business abruptly cancelled “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” its highest-rated show, and Fox News played a clip featuring an election expert rebutting the network’s previous claims on three of its shows. Newsmax anchor Bob Sellers interrupted Trump-supporting MyPillow founder Mike Lindell as he began an attack on Dominion last Tuesday, reading a statement that read in part “Newsmax accepts the results as legal and final” instead.
Nonetheless, the damage has been done. For instance, Smartmatic claims the disinformation campaign caused at least two commercial partners to suspend their relationship with the company, and that they revised their profit projections down by $500 million after being targeted.
1. What about the First Amendment?
The First Amendment provides broad protection against many defamation lawsuits. In the landmark 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court established the actual malice standard, a high bar for defamation suits involving public figures. The Court reasoned that such protection would enable journalists to do their jobs without fearing lawsuits that would chill speech about matters of public importance. For the standard to be satisfied, a court must find that the defendant intentionally defamed or acted with reckless disregard toward the truth. This is ordinarily very hard to prove.
There is a question of whether the elections-system companies will be considered “public figures,” thus triggering the actual malice standard. Nonetheless, even if the malice standard is triggered, Cass Sunstein writes that Smartmatic and Dominion “have strong arguments that they should be entitled to recover damage awards.” University of Florida professor and First Amendment lawyer Clay Calvert adds that situations like these are “why we have defamation law.” However, there are differing opinions on this.
It is important that groundless libel and defamation suits aren’t used as a bludgeon for powerful companies and individuals to silence critics. However, this is not what’s happening here. Just as an example, Giuliani falsely claimed that Smartmatic was founded “in order to fix elections” by “three Venezuelans who were very close to… the dictator Chávez of Venezuela” and that he had “boxes of evidence” that Dominion presented a “clear and present danger” of manipulating results. There are strong arguments that even our First Amendment doesn’t protect such statements.
2. Do these sorts of suits have a role to play in moderating our civil discourse?
Yes, but a very limited one. Tori Ekstrand, co-director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Media Law and Policy, argues that the threat of legal action can help combat misinformation, but that “in our current digital environment,” lies “can spread farther and faster” than a libel suit ever could.
While these suits are making waves, as a nation we are still a long way from agreeing on a common set of facts: more than 70 percent of Republicans believe Trump received more votes in the 2020 Election. Together, we have an obligation to reaffirm the sanctity of truth.
Child Poverty Bills in Congress Address Endemic Crisis
Biden and Romney speak in 2017 at the E2 Summit.
Drew Ludlow / E2 Summit / Twitter
In response to the long crisis of child poverty in America, on February 4th, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) introduced the Family Security Act. This plan would give $4,200/year to each child until age 5 and $3,000/year until adulthood in the form of small, direct, monthly checks. Senator Romney’s plan would completely pay for itself by eliminating a combination of welfare programs and tax deductions (i.e., CTC, TANF, SALT, HoH, and SNAP).
Child poverty has long been a crisis in this country. Numbers cannot convey the silent suffering of our children, but at least 11 million American kids currently live in poverty.
Senator Romney’s announcement comes in addition to President Biden’s plan to fight child poverty, as put forth within his stimulus bill. The two approaches are similar, but President Biden’s plan is a one-off to address the crisis during the pandemic, while Senator Romney’s policy would presumably continue in perpetuity. Romney’s plan is more generous while completely paying for itself by replacing some welfare programs and tax deductions, whereas Biden’s plan comes in addition to these existing programs.
1. How systemic of a problem is child poverty?
As we have written in a previous newsletter, America is in the midst of a horrific poverty crisis. A 2014 HUD report found 2.5 million American children are homeless. Between 7 million and 11 million kids do not have enough to eat. More than 40% of our children struggle to receive basic necessities. We do not have to accept this.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimate that child poverty costs America $1 trillion every year in “reduced adult productivity, increased costs of crime, and health expenditures” of growing up poor. The Romney and Biden plans would fight back by using tried and tested solutions already in place in much of the developed world. A similar child allowance policy reduced Canadian child poverty by at least 20 percent. In the United Kingdom, Tony Blair’s government used child allowances to eliminate more than 50 percent of all child poverty. A Columbia University analysis estimated that Biden’s plan alone would reduce child poverty in America by 51 percent.
2. Is this an opportunity for bipartisanship?
Perhaps. Both bills, especially Senator Romney’s, have earned plaudits from across the political spectrum. On the right, Yuval Levin (in National Review), Ramesh Ponnuru, and Ross Douthat have all praised the Romney bill’s support for families and its potential to make the tax code easier to understand for working-class Americans. The centrist Niskanen Center estimated that Romney’s plan would save one-third of all children currently living in poverty, and one-half of all children suffering in deep poverty.
On the left, Nicholas Kristof has repeatedly supported the child poverty component of Biden’s stimulus. The center-left Center for American Progress cautiously endorsed large sections of Romney’s proposal. Finally, the crowd-funded, democratic socialist People’s Policy Project carefully compared both proposals against an earlier white paper and urged Democrats to adopt the Romney plan.
Of course, the proposals also have their critics. Republican Senators Rubio and Lee immediately criticized the plan for “undercutting” a “pro-work” ethic. Per the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein, without support from those Senators, it is unclear whether any other Republicans will support the joint bills. The American Enterprise Institute’s (a free-market think tank) Poverty Studies scholar opposed Senator Romney’s plan as “misguided.” Liberals, on the other hand, will want to maintain welfare-assistance programs.
Nevertheless, at a time when Americans who disagree politically no longer seem to inhabit the same reality, perhaps a proposal to strengthen the American family and fight the crippling sin of child poverty can bring unity to a disunited nation.
Modi Cracks Down on Farmer Protests as Illiberalism Grows in India
An elderly farmer protests on the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Using tractors, trucks, makeshift tents and large boulders, tens of thousands of farmers blockaded major highways across India on Saturday, protesting new market reforms they believe will destabilize their livelihoods. The market reforms, passed in September, loosen regulations around the sale of crops and allow private buyers greater freedom to participate in the agricultural marketplace. The Modi government has argued that this move will raise farmers’ incomes and modernize the industry. Farmers disagree, asserting that over the long-term, new corporate buyers will erode government-backed price supports.
Saturday’s events were just the latest in a long-standing and growing protest movement amongst India’s farmers, who represent almost 60% of India’s population, or about 750 million people. Though reasonable actors can have differing opinions on the efficacy of the farm reforms, the key story is how these differences have been dealt with by the authorities.
1. How exactly did India’s government respond?
Modi’s government has responded to the farmers’ protests with a series of harsh and illiberal measures, fueling concern for the future of civil liberties in Asia’s largest democracy.
After a rally turned violent on January 26th, authorities blocked internet access across several districts bordering the nation’s capital. Officials claimed the move was "in the interest of maintaining public safety.” Critics assert that broad, long-lasting internet outages aim to prevent organizing, thus allowing the government to monopolize the media narrative on the protests. Despite government assurances, connectivity still has not been restored.
In the wake of recent demonstrations, censorship in India is once again on the rise. Police arrested eight reporters covering the January 26th rally on baseless charges. Another journalist was criminally charged for simply tweeting an article questioning government claims about a protester who had died.
On February 1st, Twitter temporarily suspended a large number of accounts linked to the protest movement, acting at the behest of Modi’s government. Though the social media company soon reversed course, its initial acquiescence raised fears for the future of free speech in India.
2. What can Modi’s response tell us about the future of Indian Democracy?
Internet outages and arbitrary arrests following the farmer protests were just the most recent in a series of illiberal policies under Modi’s rule. In 2020, the government caused deliberate internet outages 69 times, mostly in response to protests and opposition activity. The longest such outage occurred after protests in the disputed territory of Kashmir, where internet usage was completely blocked for 552 days.
Modi and his party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, have also increasingly targeted India’s large Muslim minority. In 2019, the government passed new citizenship laws that expressly discriminated against Muslim immigrants to India. Muslim citizens who lacked proper documents to prove their birthplace were similarly left off citizenship lists and put at risk of deportation and statelessness. That same year, thousands of Kashmiris were arrested without cause and held under “preventative detention” after India weakened the political status of the Muslim-majority territory.
Immediate action is necessary to protect the civil liberties of protestors and minorities in India. Potential pro-democracy reforms include repealing colonial-era sedition laws, reining in the Public Safety Act that allows for broad preventive detentions, and passing stricter legislation to curtail the use of indiscriminate network outages.
India must address protests and political opposition without resorting to further suppression or violence. The largest democracy in the world is at stake.