A defamation lawsuit against Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is a good example of how false, inflammatory rhetoric chases away reasonable discourse.
DEFAMATION lawsuits, such as the one filed by two Seattle police officers against Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, are notoriously tough to win. Police officers are considered public officials, and courts since the 1964 New York Times vs. Sullivan case have generally required a showing of “actual malice” before a public official can be defamed.
But regardless of whether officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding win in court, Sawant owes them an apology. And she should — but probably won’t — look to the extraordinarily divisive presidency of Donald Trump for the consequences of public officials reaching toward false, inflammatory rhetoric.
Facts matter — despite Trump’s reckless disregard for them — so here are some facts. Miller and Spaulding shot Che Taylor in February 2016. Taylor’s death became a flashpoint for race and policing issues.
But a King County jury, hearing the shooting inquest into the incident earlier this year, believed the officers. Jurors ruled the officers had reason to believe Taylor — facing a “third strike” life sentence if convicted again — was a threat to their safety and that Taylor appeared to be drawing a gun when they opened fire.
Separately, a Seattle police-review board found the shooting fell within department policy, and after the inquest jury sided with the officers, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg declined to charge them.
Sawant did not wait to know those facts. Within days of Taylor’s death, she accused them of “murder” and said the incident was the result of “racial profiling.”
That type of gasoline-on-the-fire rhetoric from elected officials — from Trump on down to Sawant — widens our partisan chasms and weakens the ability to find rational solutions to societal problems.
Those problems, for the record, include excessive police use of force against communities of color. But when Sawant drives wedges with loose talk of “murder,” she erodes a broader consensus for potential solutions. Among them are legislative efforts to lower the state’s unreasonably high standard for charging police if they unlawfully use deadly force.
Trump has quickly set the gold standard on wedge-driving lies, and we already know the consequences. He is wildly popular with his narrow base of voters and viewed as an irresponsible charlatan by a growing majority. That’s no way to govern, in the White House or the City Council chamber.
The Seattle City Council will have to decide whether to give Sawant a city-paid lawyer to defend herself from Miller and Spaulding’s lawsuit. It should not, because Sawant was so irresponsible with her rhetoric.
Although defamation lawsuits are hard to win, juries tend to sympathize with exonerated cops. Sawant’s going to need a good lawyer.