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Court Revives Slavery Quote Libel Suit Against NYT

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 21, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Walter Block, an economics professor, will be remembered for his statements in the New York Times more than for his lectures.

In 2014, the Times quoted him in an article about scholars at the Mises Institute who "championed the Confederacy." Block, an adjunct instructor at the institute, described slave life as "not so bad" if it were not involuntary.

"Not so bad -- you could pick cotton and sing songs," the newspaper said. Block sued the Times and its reporters for allegedly misquoting him.

Chattel Slavery

A trial court dismissed his case -- twice. The second time, the court said Block could not win because the facts were clear that the Times' quotes were accurate.

On appeal in Block v. Tanenhaus, the professor said the quotes were taken out of context and changed the meaning of his statements. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, saying the professor had raised a triable issue of fact.

"If the context of his statement is what he alleges, Block's statement made clear that he would only describe slavery as 'not so bad' to the extent that, unlike chattel slavery, it was voluntary," the appeals court said.

Chattel slavery commonly refers to slaves who were actual property and could be bought, sold, traded, or inherited. It was not voluntary.

Not So Bad

Block said he condemned chattel slavery, but the the newspaper made it appear that he thought it was "not so bad." The court said a trial court should decide what readers would think.

"Because the omission of context can distort the meaning of a direct quotation, there is a genuine fact issue as to whether the article misrepresented Block's statements," the Fifth Circuit said.

According to reports, two men approached Block on campus and threatened him for his statements. "You're the [expletive] who said slavery was okay," the court recounted. "We're gonna getcha."

Block's university president and 18 colleagues also condemned him over the article, Judges Jerry Smith, Jennifer Elrod, and Catharina Haynes said in remanding the case.

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