Defending Voters From Disinformation: Why I Sued the San Francisco Chronicle

Democracy Relies on Ethical Journalism

Imagine an immigrant standing up to challenge our country’s most powerful corporate politician. What story could better reflect the American dream?

It’s almost as if Broadway could write a musical about it.

Now imagine losing your home as a teenager, then spending a decade earning your undergraduate degree at night while working full-time. Imagine escaping rural Missouri, then the South Side of Chicago, to come to California to study and teach at a globally renowned law school.

Imagine working in the courts, in the streets, and in the halls of Congress for 20 years to force human rights — including climate justice, universal healthcare, and restraints on predatory policing — into the policy debate. Imagine becoming the first Democrat in a generation to represent those values in a federal election for your city’s voice in Washington.

Now, imagine red skies at high noon in the midst of a crippling global pandemic, just a few months before a historic election with immense consequences.

You might imagine voters and journalists discussing the competing choices to address those crises. In a healthy democracy, they would.

Unfortunately, our democracy is in tatters. That much we all know. That’s why I ran for Congress: to defend our democracy from the corruption of corporate rule, and authoritarian surveillance and policing.

But when this scenario unfolded in San Francisco last year, I discovered that our democracy also confronts another crisis: weaponized newspapers publishing racist accusations — including false claims of sexual misconduct — at the behest of Democratic Party operatives aligned with the establishment.

How can an immigrant candidate respond when falsely accused?

What would you do if falsely accused in public? On one hand, you might declare your innocence, and explain, “My accuser has a long history of lobbing lies at leftist political activists.”

Knowing that the response is just as important as the accusation, however, I chose another path: I accurately denied the false claims, expressed empathy for survivors, condemned harassment, invited scrutiny, and welcomed my critics without counterattacking.

I welcomed an investigation, confident that examination would reveal the truth.

Unfortunately, the newspaper of record for Northern California, owned by a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, chose stenography over journalism.

Rather than investigate, the San Francisco Chronicle chose to publish not just one story — but two — amplifying a series of fabricated accusations. The accusations were eventually debunked when more ethical journalists actually investigated, but not until two months had passed — after the controversy had faded, and organizations and voters had made up their minds based on false premises.

After the awful allegations spread by the Chronicle, many other newspapers followed suit, encouraged by local politicians who piled on, sensing political opportunity in repeating false claims.

I challenged Nancy Pelosi, a wealthy dynasty politician with over 30 years in office. And not only did I become the first Democrat to ever face her in November, but I also came closer to unseating her than any other candidate in her 34-year career — in spite of racist smears published by the newspaper of record.

There’s no doubt our campaign would have come even closer — possibly even winning — if voters read accurate reports. Few campaigns, however, can withstand the body blow of vicious and uncorrected libel, especially when leveraging well-worn patterns of white supremacy.

That’s why I sued the Chronicle. Lest anyone confuse me for right-wing voices who I detest, the facts reflect my commitment to free speech and a free press.

I’ve defended press freedom even when journalists themselves have abandoned it. My consistent defense of publisher Julian Assange demonstrates that pattern, as does my work against mass surveillance, which inhibits dissidents and whistleblowers.

I’ve even been arrested for an act of journalism, myself.

As a constitutional scholar, I know that the First Amendment protects a publication’s right to get a story wrong. What it doesn’t protect, however, is the reckless or malicious publication of known disinformation.

It doesn’t protect journalists who selectively cite their sources, or refuse to respond to whistleblowers, or fail to correct their stories after the truth emerges.

The First Amendment does not protect racist election disinformation.

Indeed, when newspapers recklessly and maliciously misinform the public, that’s not just defamatory. It destroys our democracy.

The subject of the Chronicle’s defamatory stories was me, but the targets of its racist disinformation were voters. They, and the integrity of our elections, paid the price.

That’s why I’m holding the Chronicle accountable. My lawsuit is a defense not of me, but ultimately of ethical journalism, and our democracy.

Shahid Buttar, a constitutional lawyer and public-interest advocate, won over 80,000 votes in the 2020 general election for California’s 12th congressional district, more than any previous challenger who faced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.