Every one of us has the right to defend our reputations against attack.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen reputations destroyed by people with agendas. Those agendas have been personal, political, criminal or simply borne out of the nihilistic desire to hurt a moving human target.
Many of these attacks have been unjustified from an objective standpoint, although, like Christine Blasey Ford, they have garnered the support of like-minded social predators with resentment in their arsenals.
Some have been unsuccessful, as with the Duke lacrosse debacle, but in their failure have established fearful precedents and a motive for others to keep attacking. and yet the right to defend ourselves remains.
It is enshrined in the 5th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution. It is codified in the laws against slander and defamation. It is even present, albeit severely weakened, in the wilds of social media.
But it exists, and no one should be penalized for exercising it in the moments when someone with a grudge comes for us, rhetorical weapons blazing.
I was reminded of this the other day when a friend I’ve only met through Twitter made an innocuous comment about women and their obsession with cellphones in public spaces.
He was doxed and ridiculed. They tried to get him fired from his teaching job and made life a general hell for the hummingbird spin cycle in the virtual universe.
Seeing what happened to Steve reminded me of what happened to my friend Stu Bykofsky.
“Byko” is a legendary literary presence in the Philadelphia region, having chronicled the events and characters of this city and its suburbs for almost a half century.
He started out and will always be associated with the Philadelphia Daily News, but also wrote for the sister Inquirer after a merger of sorts occurred.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I also wrote for the Daily News/Inquirer for almost two decades, not nearly as long as Stu but long enough to create my own following of lovers and haters.
I left the papers, not of my own will, but because an editor who is no longer there and who once jokingly said she’d love to strangle me because of my pro-life views, didn’t like the way that I defended myself in emails to readers.
You might know that kind of reader, the ones who suggest that you are a sexist, a bigot, a racist, and oh, maybe someone should sexually assault you so you’d understand how victims truly feel.
I responded with some salty observations of my own, which did not sit well with the editors. So I’m not exactly an unbiased observer.
But what I went through is nothing compared to what Stu endured.
At his going away party in 2019 — a party that he really didn’t want but was forced upon him by colleagues — Inga Saffron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic at the Inquirer accused him of having a “taste” for child prostitutes in Thailand. Inga got this “scoop” about Stu’s alleged extracurricular activities from a 2011 column he’d written about a trip he took to Thailand.
I’ve read the column, and nothing in it would give anyone the idea he was guilty of that most shocking, and criminal, of acts.
She later admitted to an ongoing grudge with Stu, in large part because of their disagreement over bicyclists in the city.
Stu was shocked, as was I.
I remember standing there at the party and thinking that this was an “Alice in Wonderland” moment, and waited for someone in the newsroom to stop the verbal assault. No one did.
Stu had taken a buyout from the company, on the condition that he not “disparage” the paper to third parties. When, however, a video of the party and a story was published online by Philadelphia magazine, and the full horror of the defamation went public, Bykofsky sued to repair his reputation.
The Inquirer then did something so unprecedented that it should receive a Pulitzer for innovation: a newspaper trashing the First Amendment. It sued Stu, and sought a return of his retirement package.
The sheer chutzpah of a newspaper suing someone because of speech it doesn’t like is without precedent. Literally, I’ve looked through the annals of First Amendment jurisprudence, and I couldn’t find any examples of the Fourth Estate suing to shut someone up.
The lawsuit is still pending, by the way.
This is not just a simple contractual issue. To my mind, this is a dangerous attempt at punishing someone for defending his reputation. We all have to deal with blowback in this hostile age. The toxic mix of partisanship, anonymity and grievance has made us vulnerable to unfair attacks.
But the idea that a newspaper would join in the attacks is astonishing, troubling and dangerous. To quote a great defender of free speech, attention must be paid.