Opinion | The Unsettling Truth at the Heart of the Giuliani Case

No sooner did a jury deliver a nearly $150 million defamation judgment against the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani than he went out and again started smearing the two Georgia election workers at the center of the case. Within days, he filed for bankruptcy, shielding himself in the near term from having to surrender whatever assets he has to his creditors.

His brazen thumbing of his nose at the jury and the legal system laid bare some unsettling truths about justice. Defamation law is one of the few tools that lawyers have to hold people accountable for using lies to destroy reputations and to deter wrongdoing. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, county clerks, election officials and other public servants targeted by politically motivated conspiracy theories like the Big Lie have used defamation lawsuits to try to clear their names and correct the public record.

But in a hyperpartisan era when the incentives to tell lies about your political opponents can seemingly outweigh the risks, is defamation law still up to the task? And if admitted liars like Mr. Giuliani can avoid having to pay up, what does accountability even look like now?

Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, the two election workers who sued Mr. Giuliani for falsely claiming that they stole the 2020 election in Georgia for Joe Biden, will probably only ever see pennies on the dollar of the full amount that a Washington, D.C., jury awarded them.

There are a few procedural hurdles to clear: The bankruptcy proceedings will hinge on whether a judge decides that Mr. Giuliani’s actions were “willful and malicious.” (If they were, he’ll still have to pay, even in bankruptcy.) Then there’s the question of whether he has the money to pay his debts. According to his bankruptcy petition, he has $1 million to $10 million in assets — nowhere close to what he’d need to clear the roughly $153 million he says he owes in total. (That number doesn’t include ongoing lawsuits against him that could also lead to financial settlements.) Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss could negotiate a settlement with him or choose to pursue a percentage of his assets and earnings for the rest of his working life.

Recouping any money in a defamation judgment can take time. After juries in Connecticut and Texas found Infowars founder Alex Jones liable for more than $1.4 billion for spreading lies and conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school shooting, the families of victims who sued him and his businesses have spent the past year fighting him in bankruptcy. Only after a judge ruled that Mr. Jones’s conduct had met the “willful and malicious” standard did he finally propose a greatly reduced settlement of $5.5 million per year for five years and then a percentage of his business income for the next five. (The Sandy Hook families, who filed their suits nearly six years ago, have offered their own plan to liquidate all of Mr. Jones’s existing assets and to pursue his future earnings to collect on their jury verdict.)

But victory for plaintiffs in cases like these is not limited to money. A trial gives victims of viral disinformation a chance to confront their tormentor in a court of law, where facts and procedures still matter, offering them a real sense of catharsis and vindication. Especially in cases that involve major news events, defamation suits can also help correct the public record. The trial in Freeman v. Giuliani not only proved that Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss had not done any of the criminal acts Mr. Giuliani alleged; it exhaustively debunked one of the biggest conspiracy theories to emerge from the 2020 presidential election.

Tens of thousands of articles and TV segments amplified the trial’s findings to a massive audience. “This case was never about making Ruby and Shaye rich,” said Michael J. Gottlieb, the lead lawyer for the two women. “Of course, we wanted them to be compensated. But it was about accountability and establishing a public record of the truth about what happened at State Farm Arena in November 2020.”

On a societal level, the real hope for these defamation cases is that over time, as more liars are brought low by their actions and held accountable in court, politicians and political operatives will pause before spreading disinformation and, slowly, this country will move toward a better, safer political discourse. For now, that seems overly optimistic. The twisted incentives created by extreme polarization and a fragmented media landscape might lead a young up-and-comer in conservative (or liberal, for that matter) politics to traffic in disinformation and conspiracy theories if that is the quickest way to fame, fortune and influence — consequences be damned.

Our society counts on defamation judgments to draw a line between truth and falsity, and “we don’t imagine that there will routinely be recalcitrant defendants who will feel the incentive to lie to audiences that are eager to accept those lies is greater than the incentive to abide by the rule of law,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a University of Utah law professor and media expert. “Our libel system doesn’t really envision those dynamics.” Libel law itself may be outdated — too slow or too weak to reckon with the realities of modern politics.

But there is reason to hope. As the Giuliani case shows, deterrence can take many forms. When Mr. Giuliani uttered more lies about Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss shortly after the verdict, they filed a new lawsuit in the same court, seeking an injunction to prevent him from continuing to defame them. If successful, that case could be the strongest protection they have from getting drawn into the spotlight once more.

Even without an injunction, now that a court has ruled that Mr. Giuliani defamed the two women with actual malice — meaning he knowingly or recklessly made the false statements in question — media outlets large and small may be hesitant to give him a platform. Even if the judgment doesn’t chasten Mr. Giuliani, it will almost surely make networks like Fox News and One America News think twice before they put him on the air.

More than updating defamation law or passing new legislation, the way to send a signal to future Rudy Giulianis and Alex Joneses is by defending victims of widespread lies — and the larger truth — at scale. One of the legal organizations that represented Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, Protect Democracy, is attempting to do just that. The group is also representing them in a separate lawsuit against the right-wing blog The Gateway Pundit and is representing a Pennsylvania postal worker smeared by Project Veritas, a county recorder in Arizona attacked by the Republican candidate Kari Lake and a voter in Georgia accused of being a “ballot mule” by Dinesh D’Souza.

These cases will test whether our legal system can evolve to meet the challenges posed by our viral era. But at the least, Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss have shown that you don’t have to be rich or powerful to achieve justice.

Andy Kroll (@AndyKroll) is a reporter at ProPublica and the author of “A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy.”

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