07/22/2005 11:25 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Roman Polanski's Dubious Victory

CNN reports that Vanity Fair has just lost the libel suit brought against the magazine by film director Roman Polanski. Before anyone uses this incident to rail against the liberal media—or any media, for that matter—let's put it in context.

The VF article in question was a profile of Elaine's, the writer's hangout on New York's Upper East Side. It mentioned that Polanski had tried to seduce a woman there while on the way to his wife's funeral, telling her something like, "I could make you the next Sharon Tate."

Polanski sued, saying that he had done no such thing.

Turns out that he did, with one big caveat: It wasn't on the way to Sharon Tate's funeral, but several weeks after the funeral, when Polanski tried to seduce a Scandinavian model with that unfortunate line. Because of that factual error, the jury ruled in Polanski's favor, awarding him damages of about $87,000.

Far be it from me to judge a man's actions in the wake of his wife's murder. That's not the point. The point is that Vanity Fair's story was substantially true: soon after his wife's murder, Polanski tried to seduce a woman by suggesting that he could make her a star.

It helped Polanski that he sued in England (though he testified via video link from Paris, because if he came to London, he risked being extradited to the US for a previous charge of statutory rape). Libel law in the UK is substantially more plaintiff-friendly than in this country. In England, a publisher can lose a libel suit for printing something even if it's true. In the United States, a libel plaintiff generally has to prove not only that the material in question is false, but that the writer/magazine knew it was false and printed it anyway. It would be almost impossible in the United States to win a libel suit in which the publisher was at least partly correct and admitted that it erred on some details, as Vanity Fair did.

Roman Polanski will undoubtedly proclaim that he has been completely vindicated. In fact, all he has done is show that if you want to sue for libel, do it in a country where freedom of the press is not as valued as it is in this one. Whether his reputation is better off for the result is for him to decide.