The wheels of the law turn slowly. Once a precedent is set, it can take years to overturn, even when the weight of public opinion has turned against its underpinnings. Case in point, New York’s recently passed marriage-equality law.
Even as activists celebrate the law’s passage, an odd case comes out of the Supreme Court of Broome County. In Yonaty v. Mincola, Hon. Phillip Rumsey held that a plaintiff who complained of defamation for allegedly false statements about his being gay had a case that could proceed.
The important thing about this case is not that the statements were false but that Judge Rumsey held that—under existing precedent—the statements were derogatory per se. When a plaintiff brings a claim for defamation, he generally has to prove some sort of damages arising out of the false statement; usually some sort of economic loss. Except for a very limited class of statements, just because you say it, it doesn’t cause harm, even if it may be false.
In that limited class of statements—usually statements concerning a person’s alleged criminal past, alleged infection with a “loathsome disease,” dishonesty in business, and (in New York) homosexuality—harm is presumed, and a statement is actionable as a matter of law. But when equality in the most fundamental and basic of familial relations has been explicitly recognized by the state, can it really be defamatory to call someone “gay”? Under Judge Rumsey’s ruling, yes it can.
It’s important to note that the fault here is not Judge Rumsey’s. He followed the precedent that he was required to follow. Trial court judges do not have the luxury of ignoring years of established case law. No, the lesson his order teaches is that, when discrimination becomes institutionalized, it takes more than a single vote or a stroke of the governor’s pen to make it go away. History does not depend upon the present, but vice versa. The law on which Judge Rumsey was forced to rely came from years before the recent referendum, but it was the law, nevertheless.
In recent years, states and their citizens have found all new classes of people to hate, and the results of that hatred are now turning up in state houses across the nation. It is ground to be trod with caution. When, in the heat of the moment, targeting one class for particular treatment becomes a goal of the law, it is not so easily ferreted out when more sober thoughts take hold.
Tip o’ the hat to Onpointnews.com.