The day before Thanksgiving break, I checked my email to find a threatening legal notice sent by a lawyer representing Anthony Scaramucci. He demanded that the student-run newspaper I work at, the Tufts Daily, either retract portions of two recently published op-eds critical of Scaramucci and issue a public apology, or face legal action.
Scaramucci, who is widely known for his explosive 10-day tenure as President Donald Trump’s White House communications director, also happened to be a member of the board of advisors of the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The offending op-eds, written by a graduate student at the Fletcher School, criticized Scaramucci’s inclusion on the board and called for his removal. In October, a Fletcher student started a popular petition to remove Scaramucci from the board.
As the newspaper’s executive opinion editor, I reviewed both op-eds and thought they were worth publishing. I did so not because I agreed wholeheartedly with everything the student said, but because as the curator of the opinion section, I strive to facilitate an open exchange of ideas. A few days following the publication of the second op-ed, I also received and published an op-ed that was immensely critical of the campaign to remove Scaramucci.
That, plus Scaramucci’s forthcoming trip to Fletcher to discuss the petition and defend himself, made me think our civic system was working, facilitated in part by the opinion page. Someone had made an argument attacking a public figure, someone else had defended the accused, and they would argue it out at the Fletcher School’s public forum.
Scaramucci’s heavy-handed attempt to protect his reputation doesn’t seem to have worked. Amid mounting pressure, Scaramucci resigned from the board on Tuesday. He would’ve been better off, and probably still on the Fletcher board, had he defended himself in person.
My larger worry is over the message this episode conveys. Whether or not Scaramucci files his lawsuit, his threat has set a dangerous precedent: that attacking a public figure can lead to costly legal fees.
In this age of never-ending news, Twitter arguments, and viral sound-bites, op-ed pages are among the few remaining places for serious, detailed, and articulate debates on important public issues. The very threat of a lawsuit has a chilling effect on free speech. How many people are willing to face a lawsuit just for voicing their opinions? Such legal threats significantly raise the bar for those who wish to enter the public arena, which should be accessible to all, not just those who have the time or means to protect themselves from unscrupulous legal action.
If criticizing someone for their widely documented actions isn’t fair game, then we’ve moved into the realm of policing others’ opinions. Of course, the line between critical and libelous can sometimes be hazy. But we in the media can’t censor ourselves, or the opinions of others, out of fear of upsetting the powerful.
Arman Smigielski is the executive opinion editor of the Tufts Daily and a former publications intern at the Council on Foreign Relations.