Tag Archives: anti-SLAPP laws

What Do the NY Times and LA Times Have in Common with the National Enquirer? They All Love anti-SLAPP Laws

Image result for national enquirer richard simmons sex change

The National Enquirer is in the news rather than reporting it—not for printing that Elvis is alive and well, but for its alleged role as “a dirty-tricks shop for Donald J. Trump in 2016,” as The New York Times put it in an article that described the supermarket tabloid as “the most powerful print publication in America.” The Enquirer served as a propaganda rag for The Donald, first targeting Ted Cruz during the primaries and then amplifying anti-Hillary conspiracy theories like “PizzaGate,” the ridiculous stories that candidate Clinton was sleeping with Huma Abedin and that she had hired a “hitman” to murder people who annoyed her.

It paid $150,000 for the story of a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with our current president—so they could bury it. (They call this a “catch-and-kill” deal.)

Even for the pond-scum standards of the National Enquirer, this is super sleazy. Mainstream media outlets like the Times are pointing out how gross and yucky the Enquirer is and they’re right to do so.

What these august guardians of the Fourth Estate are not as eager to talk about is how, when it comes to a little-known law with a massive effect on libel and defamation law, respectable print institutions like the New York Times are on the same side as such exemplars of yellow journalism as the National Enquirer.

Twenty-eight states—including many of the most populous—have “anti-SLAPP” laws ostensibly designed to protect newspapers, radio and television outlets from being sued for libel or defamation.

Their real purpose is to allow the media to get away with murder.

Let’s say a newspaper prints an article that destroys your reputation: for example, you’re a teacher and the piece says you sexually assaulted students. Now let’s say that you’re innocent. Not only that, you can prove you’re innocent. So you sue the paper for defamation or libel.

In the old days, your lawsuit would head to discovery and then to trial where a jury of your peers would weigh the evidence. If 12 men and women good and true agreed that the paper had lied about you and hurt your reputation, they might award you damages to make up for lost wages and other financial harm. After all, even a verdict in your favor probably wouldn’t cause a school district to be willing to hire you.

Now we have anti-SLAPP. If you live in a state with one of these pretzel-logic statutes, the odds of getting justice are very low. It doesn’t matter how brazen the lie about you was or how much it hurt you or your livelihood. Even if you can prove the paper knew what they said about you wasn’t true when they decided to print it, an anti-SLAPP motion will probably stop you dead in your tracks—assuming you can find a lawyer willing to represent you in a state with an anti-SLAPP law in the first place. As a defamation law expert in California told me, “Defamation law is effectively dead. There is no redress.”

Here’s how it works. First you sue. Then the paper that slimed you files an anti-SLAPP motion. Discovery—subpoenaing each other’s documents, deposing witnesses on both sides—halts before it begins. So you can’t collect evidence. Years pass. Legal bills mount. Without access to documents and witnesses you have to convince a judge—not a jury—that your case doesn’t involve “privileged communications”—whatever that is—and that you’ll probably prevail before a jury. Of course, the judge doesn’t know that. Odds are you’ll never see that jury. Here’s the best part: after the judge tosses your case, you—the victim!—have to pay the legal fees of the publication that tried to ruin you.

Because they violate the centuries-old right to trial by jury, two state Supreme Courts—in Washington and Minnesota—have gotten rid of their anti-SLAPP statutes, ruling them unconstitutional. But there’s still a long way to go before sanity prevails; if anything, the momentum is for more states to legalize defamation with anti-SLAPP laws.

Because anti-SLAPP motions are themselves the subject of years-long litigation and appeals, trial lawyers rake in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the anti-SLAPP racket. The only victims are plaintiffs forced into bankruptcy.

Run a Google search for “criticism of anti-SLAPP laws” and you’ll likely come up empty. News articles about anti-SLAPP contain countless quotes in favor, none against.

Media companies love anti-SLAPP laws because they allow them to run “fake news” day after day without the slightest worry of being held accountable for their perfidy. Even liberal former labor secretary Robert Reich has fallen for anti-SLAPP propaganda, which holds that such laws help poor individuals defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits filed by deep-pocketed corporations when, in fact, the opposite is more often true.

A California court recently ruled in favor of an anti-SLAPP motion filed against fitness icon Richard Simmons by the National Enquirer. Simmons had sued the tabloid after it falsely published a BS cover story (which it described as “shocking!”) claiming Simmons had undergone a sex change to become a woman. He had not. Simmons said he “has a legal right to insist that he not be portrayed as someone he is not” and “to be portrayed in a manner that is truthful.” Few reasonable people would disagree.

Simmons got screwed.

Check out the Orwellian Enquirer argument the judge bought hook, line and sinker: “Plaintiff has no right to suppress speech about him, even false speech, if it is not harmful to his reputation.” The judge ordered Simmons—the victim—to pay $130,000 to the Enquirer, which admits it lied about him. “Falsity is not enough” to prove defamation, said Enquirer attorney Kelli Sager.

The anti-SLAPP business has become shameless. Sager even defended the Daily Mail after it ran a fake-news story connecting First Lady Melania Trump to an escort agency.

The Los Angeles Times recently made a similar anything-goes argument in favor of its anti-SLAPP motion against me. In 2015, when the #1 shareholder of the Times’ parent company was the LAPD pension fund, the then-LAPD chief ordered the then-publisher, his political ally, to fire me and run a fake-news story describing me me as a liar and fabulist. After I proved it was the Times and not me who lied, Kelli Sager—the National Enquirer lawyer who also represents the upscale Los Angeles Times—told the court: “This is not a case about the quote-unquote truth.”

After I sued for defamation, the trial judge—in the same courthouse as the Simmons case—ruled that I—the victim—must pay the Times $330,000 in their legal fees even though I had shown they were liars and that they knew what they printed about me was untrue at the time. Like Simmons, we are appealing.

The Enquirer recently hit the Playboy model in the Trump case, Karen McDougal, with an anti-SLAPP motion that would force her to pay its legal fees.

For my money the most outrageous California example of abuse I’ve read recently is former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen’s anti-SLAPP motion against Stormy Daniels. Cohen said Daniels lied about having an affair with Trump—which is plainly false.

Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for arranging hush-money payoffs to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. Too bad he won’t be bunking with the publishers of the National Enquirer and The Los Angeles Times.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Corporations Are Abusing anti-SLAPP Laws to Screw Over Workers

“It’s a sadly familiar sight in courthouses around the country: A deep-pocketed corporation, developer or government official files a lawsuit whose real purpose is to silence a critic, punish a whistleblower or win a commercial dispute.”

Sounds awful, right?

Fortunately, according to The Los Angeles Times editorial board, “That’s why California enacted a law in 1992 to give people a preemptive legal strike against frivolous lawsuits that seek to muzzle them on public issues.” According to the Digital Media Law Project, 28 states, D.C., and one U.S. territory have enacted these so-called “anti-SLAPP statutes.” (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” A classic example was when the cattle industry sued Oprah for dissing beef.)

At first glance, anti-SLAPP seems like a good solution to a serious problem.

In theory.

In the real world, however, well-meaning legislators have created a monster. In the hands of clever corporate lawyers, anti-SLAPP laws have become a loophole to libel laws and a catchall defense for disgusting behavior. What started as a good idea has become a menace to free speech, the ability to protect one’s reputation, and the right to redress in a court of law.

As I’ve discovered personally over the last year, California’s anti-SLAPP statute is at least as likely to be used by “a deep-pocketed corporation” against a “critic” as the way the legislature originally intended, which is to say the other way around.

In July 2015 The Los Angeles Times — yes, the same paper that published the above editorial — fired me as its staff editorial cartoonist. It has since come out that they did so as a favor to Charlie Beck, the $297,000-a-year chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Beck’s feelings were hurt because of the cartoons that I drew about him.

The cops weren’t satisfied with merely having me fired. They wanted me destroyed. So the Times also published a pair of articles that falsely portrayed me as a liar and a fabulist — death to a journalist’s reputation.

So I sued the Times for wrongful termination, blacklisting, retaliation and defamation, as well as other claims.

Initially I had trouble finding a lawyer willing to represent me on the defamation claim. California’s anti-SLAPP statute, attorneys told me, have gutted the practice of defamation law in the Golden State. Fortunately for me, as several of the state’s leading experts on defamation law told me, Times management’s behavior was so outrageous, reprehensible and ongoing that I stood a better chance of getting over the anti-SLAPP hurdle than most plaintiffs.

As most of the attorneys I consulted had predicted, one of the first things that the Times did was file an anti-SLAPP motion against me. So much for anti-SLAPP being used against “a deep-pocketed corporation…whose real purpose is to silence a critic.” The Times is owned by Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing), a $499 million mega-corporation. The Times paid me $300 a week.

Until that pretrial anti-SLAPP motion is decided, I can’t engage in “discovery,” the process of gathering information through subpoenas and depositions essential to forming a case. As Vikram David Amar writes, “oftentimes a plaintiff who may have a valid claim will not be able to prevail because s/he will not have had enough of an opportunity to gather the evidence (through legal discovery devices like depositions and document requests) needed to prove the case.”

Because of anti-SLAPP, I must convince a judge that I am likely to prevail at an eventual trial — before the first juror has been chosen or any evidence has been discovered.

If the judge decides that I will probably lose my case, I will have to pay all of the Times’ legal fees. According to papers that the defendants filed, they expect that to amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The case would be dismissed. I would go bankrupt.

Even if I convince the judge that I’ll win, my tormentors at the Times then get a second shot at destroying my financial well-being: they can go to the Court of Appeals. By that time, of course, their legal bills will be even higher. And it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that those fees will be highly padded. Many judges take defendants at their word when it comes to the validity of legal invoices.

We’re not done.

I live in New York. As an out-of-state plaintiff, California Code 1030 provides a defendant the right to move that I be required to post a bond in order to guarantee the payment of the Times’ attorney fees should they prevail on their anti-SLAPP motion. “The Times will defend itself vigorously against Mr. Rall’s claims,” a Times spokesperson said when I sued. They sure are. They filed a motion asking the judge to require me to post a whopping $300,000 bond.

The judge knocked it down to $75,000. Unlike criminal bonds that can be purchased for 10%, however, this civil bond must be 100% collateralized. In other words, I have to come up with $75,000 in “pay to play” money by Thursday, August 18, or my case will automatically be dismissed.

And you thought this was a free country.

Happily, there are signs that anti-SLAPP madness is finally coming to an end. Setting an important precedent, Justice Vance Raye of the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento denied an anti-SLAPP motion filed by UC Davis against a former employee who claims she was fired for whistleblowing.

“The cure [anti-SLAPP] has become the disease,” wrote Raye. UC’s argument was “ at odds with the purpose of the anti-SLAPP law, which was designed to ferret out meritless lawsuits intended to quell the free exercise of First Amendment rights, not to burden victims of discrimination and retaliation with an earlier and heavier burden of proof than other civil litigants and dissuade the exercise of their right to petition for fear of an onerous attorney fee award.”

Raye’s ruling is a good start. But what’s needed is for the 28 state legislatures in anti-SLAPP states to reform the law.

If you like to read more about the case and/or contribute to my fundraiser – I am not going down without a fight – please click here or go directly to http://gofundme.com/tedrall

(Ted Rall is the author of the graphic biography “Trump: A Graphic Biography.”)