Legal Columns


Is it possible to file a defamation suit against New York Times? 05/17/2015

This story is from a while ago. A friend of mine got pulled over by a cop while he was driving drunk with a flushed face. He was an audacious guy to begin with but when the cop asked him “Why is your face so red? Have you been drinking?”, he arrogantly responded “My face is normally red because I am a native indian. Are you discriminating me because of my race?” To my friend’s surprise, this accusation caught the officer totally off guard and he apologized “I had no such intent at all. I am sorry if I came across the wrong way,” and ended up letting my friend go. This kind of silly prank would not work nowadays as there are much more Asians in the U.S. but it shows how sensitive the country can be when it comes to racial discrimination issues. Racial discrimination is absolutely unacceptable in the American society.


Recently, on May 7, 2015, the New York Times printed an article called “The Price of Nice Nails,” which described the Korean nail business owners as a group of people who practice racial discrimination. The article seems to cite problems in nail industry in general such as low wages and mistreatments. However, under a sub paragraph titled “An Ethnic Caste System,” it mentions how 70~80% of nail salons in New York City are owned by Koreans and make it sound like all Korean business owners are racists. The article also included personal stories and quotes like the one who had to eat lunch every day standing in a kitchenette with the shop’s other non-Korean workers, while her Korean counterparts ate at their desks; “Their country people, they are completely free,” “Why do they make us two different?” “Everybody is the same.” Although the New York Times indicated that the quotes were from one person, it does give out an impression that all Koreans are racists when you finish reading the whole article. To anyone reading this article and taking its contents ‘as is’ would see Koreans as a rude group of people who goes against the social taboo and racially discriminate others.


As a Korean, reading this article made me very upset. But I would like to reexamine the issue from an attorney’s perspective. Would Korean nail business owners be able to file a defamation suit against the New York Times?


In order to proceed with the defamation suit, the plaintiff must prove that (1) the contents were false, (2) the contents were delivered to a 3rd party either verbally or in written statements, (3) the defendant was at fault for delivering false contents to a 3rd party, and (4) that caused the plaintiff harm. In this particular incident, I would say that the plaintiff just needs to prove that the contents of article are different from the truth and that harm was caused upon him or her.


However, extreme caution must be exercised handling this case because it is against the New York Times. Newspapers and broadcasting outlets have a special privilege for freedom of speech laid down by the U.S. constitution. For that reason, even though they criticize an organization, a government agency, a person through their editorial articles, newspapers remain protected by the freedom of speech and opponents rarely file defamation suits as those articles are considered their opinion. Also, news broadcasts and newspaper articles do not necessarily have report 100% truth; they can report something that is “substantially true.” Therefore, the key debate of this issue would be whether the contents in the article were “substantially true” or not.


Since the article was released, Korean consulate in New York went on to investigate, and there also have been stories about KAPA (Korean American Parents Association of Greater New York) sending protesting complaints to the New York Times and getting ready to do a demonstration. Hopefully, this New York Times article will make a positive contribution on improving the overall welfare of the nail industry, however, the misunderstanding about Korean nail business owners must be resolved.


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