By now, you’ve probably seen the letter that the Assistant GC of the NY Times sent to the Trump campaign, in response to the threat of an (almost definitely) unwarranted lawsuit.
The full letter is below. Give it a read if you haven’t already. It takes about one minute, from beginning to end.
Like many, I wanted to stand up and applaud this letter. Putting the substance aside, I write a lot of these letters in my job for Automattic, and think this one is a near perfect example of a legal threat response.
Three things stood out:
- The tone is firm, but not bellicose. The letter does not hedge. It makes clear that the Times believes they are on solid legal ground, and welcomes the plaintiff to challenge their position in court. It does not leave the door open to further dialog or negotiating. At the same time it does not seek to escalate the rhetoric, or try to goad the other side into a fight. “Our position is clear and we’re standing by it. Your move.”
- It speaks to the intended audiences. The plaintiff’s lawyer is the primary audience. But at the same time, the Times knew that the letter would be public, and had to consider this in its response. It’s a fine line to walk. In cases like this, there’s an opening to use the platform of a public letter to articulate some larger principles, and speak to a broad audience about a set of values that are important to the Times. They did a good job of taking this opportunity but not going overboard into grandstanding, which can needlessly throw gas on a fire if the other side thinks they are being used for a PR stunt.
- There’s no legalese. At all. The letter doesn’t cite any cases, doctrines, statutes. But it is structured as a legal argument, hitting all of the points needed to refute a libel claim. The writer assumes the plaintiff knows the law, and does not waste time trying to educate. It deals with the other side on even terms, which can be powerful. “We know your claim is bogus, and so do you.”
I also loved this piece by Mr. McCraw about the public response to the letter. There are a lot of great points in the article, but I particularly loved that Mr. McCraw called out his colleagues who helped write and refine the letter. It’s always a team effort.