Suit Against ‘Spirit of Crazy Horse’ Ends
A seven-year libel battle over passages in Peter Matthiessen’s “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” ended quietly in late October when the plaintiff, former South Dakota Gov. William Janklow, chose not to appeal a lower court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Janklow’s complaint alleged that the book portrayed him as “morally decadent,” “a drunkard,” “a racist and a bigot,” and “an antagonist of the environment.” Janklow’s attorney, Brent Wilbur, said his client also was pictured as “having raped someone, and that he drove drunk and nude.”
“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” focused on the events leading up to the shoot-out between federal agents and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) on the Pine Ridge Reservation near Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1975. Two FBI agents were killed, and Leonard Peltier, a member of AIM, was later convicted of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Matthiessen’s book argued that Peltier was railroaded into prison and called for a new trial.
Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking Press, also had been the objects of a $25-million libel suit filed by FBI agent David Price. Price’s suit was dismissed in Minnesota state courts. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Price’s appeal.
During nearly eight years of litigation, no copies of “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” have been available beyond the initial printing of 35,000 copies. No further printings were issued after the lawsuits by Janklow and Price were filed.
Janklow had sued Matthiessen and Viking for $24 million. His May, 1983, lawsuit was dismissed in 1984 by South Dakota Circuit Judge Paul Kean. After an appeal by Janklow, the South Dakota State Supreme Court sent the case back to Kean.
After extensive investigation, Kean once again dismissed the case in 1989. On July 18, 1990, the South Dakota State Supreme Court ruled 3-1 in favor of Kean’s second dismissal.
Janklow had a 90-day period in which he could have appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the appeal time elapsed with no action by Janklow.
Wilbur, an attorney in Pierre, S.D., said he would not answer for his client as to why Janklow had chosen not to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Janklow did not return phone calls to his office.
But Wilbur pointed out that an appeal to the Supreme Court would require a new brief and thus would be expensive. He added that “as I recall, less than 5%" of cases appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court are accepted for hearing.
Matthiessen, who won the National Book Award for “The Snow Leopard,” could not be reached for comment.
Peter Mayer, chief executive officer of Viking’s parent organization, the Penguin Group, in New York, said: “With the end now of the last of the appeals, a final victory for a generous interpretation of the right to write, to publish and to read has been won.”
New York attorney Martin Garbus, who represented Matthiessen and Viking, said, “The case deals with the extent to which public officials can be criticized.” He said the victory for Matthiessen and Viking represented “the furthest parameter of the extent thus far of criticism of public officials.”
Elisabeth Sifton, who was one of Matthiessen’s editors at Viking and who is now an editor at Knopf, lamented that the “great pity” of the lawsuits were that they “constrained further publication of the book.”
“The tragic effect is that while all this has been going on, people could not read the book,” Sifton said.
Garbus took Sifton’s position one step further, calling the matter “censorship by libel suit.”
Viking will reissue the book in hardcover in May, Viking spokesman Paul Slovak said. The new edition will include a new final chapter by Matthiessen about the events of the last eight years, including the trials and continuing efforts by Peltier supporters. It will also include an afterword by Garbus, looking at the ramifications of the case for freedom of the press.
Viking estimates that it has spent more than $2 million in legal expenses fighting the two suits.
Wilbur, describing the battle as “unusually long,” would not comment on the legal expenses his side incurred.
But, said Wilbur, “at some point in time you decide you have given it your best shot, and you may as well do something else with your life.”