Tag Archives: first amendment

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Media Companies Are Abusing Anti-SLAPP Laws to Publish Fake News with Impunity

Image result for national enquirer richard simmons

The National Enquirer and Radar Online published a series of news stories that reported that Richard Simmons, the fitness instructor and TV personality, was transitioning to become a woman. “Richard Simmons: He’s Now a Woman,” read an Enquirer headline.

He’s not.

The Enquirer lied about Simmons. So he sued.

Seems like a straightforward case of libel. Yet, insanely, thanks to California’s constitutionally dubious, nonsensical “anti-SLAPP” statute, a judge has ordered him — a bona fide victim of “fake news” — to pay the Enquirer $122,000. The miscarriage of justice in Simmons’ case is worth thinking about as well-intentioned progressives try to defend the Fourth Estate from toxic smears by President Trump.

Proposals like a federal “shield” law to protect journalists and their sources could help shore up the First Amendment. But the current push for a national anti-SLAPP law like the one that slammed Simmons is woefully misguided and would only bolster Trump’s argument that the media publishes lies with impunity.

Simmons, a gay icon who calls himself “an avid supporter of the LGBTQ community,” sued the media outlets for libel in Los Angeles. Simmons presented key evidence, an Enquirer document indicating that the newspaper could not rely on its source for the Simmons transgender story, his former assistant.

The landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case Sullivan v. New York Times established a standard that, in order to prove libel, a public figure such as Simmons must show that the defendants either knew a story was false at the time of publication, or that they had reckless disregard for the truth. Simmons seems to have the makings of a successful case on both counts.

Simmons says he sued because the stories violated his privacy and falsely portrayed him as someone he’s not. Also, given that as many as one out of four Americans are uncomfortable with and/or actually despise transgender people, it would not be unreasonable for Simmons to worry that he might lose business as a result.

Twenty-eight states have anti-SLAPP (“strategic lawsuit against public participation”) laws. They’re presented as a way for a poor individual or whistleblower to defend themselves from deep-pocketed corporations. The reality is a classic case study in unforeseen consequences: poorly-written, confusing anti-SLAPP laws are routinely abused by giant media outlets so they can avoid being held accountable for reckless smears and to send a chilling message to victims who seek redress in the courts.

The assumption behind anti-SLAPP appears to have originated during the Reagan-era “tort reform” movement. Courts, conservatives claimed, were clogged by frivolous lawsuits filed by giant companies. In 1996, for example, Texas cattlemen sued talk host Oprah Winfrey under the state’s “veggie libel” law for saying that she’d stop eating burgers. But there is no statistical evidence that the problem, if it exists at all, is widespread or can’t typically be disposed of by the standard litigation tactic of filing a motion for summary judgment.

In states like California, a libel or defamation defendant like the National Enquirer can file an anti-SLAPP motion as soon as it receives a lawsuit. Discovery stops. Plaintiffs aren’t allowed to subpoena documents or depose witnesses. A judge reads the legal complaint, assumes everything the plaintiff says is true and everything the defendant says is false and, based on those assumptions, assesses whether the case has minimal merit. If so, the anti-SLAPP motion is denied and the case moves forward.

If not, the case is thrown out of court and the plaintiff is ordered to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees. (The supreme courts of Minnesota and Washington have declared anti-SLAPP laws unconstitutional because they violate plaintiff’s right to a jury trial.)

That’s what happened to Richard Simmons. He is appealing.

Anti-SLAPP laws rely on a flawed theory. In reality, deep-pocketed interest groups like the cattlemen who sued Oprah aren’t deterred by the potential expense of having to pay the defendant’s legal fees. Moreover, the statutes are extremely confusing, featuring more exceptions to exceptions than French grammar. Moreover, anti-SLAPP asks judges to act against their very nature; for example, judges are not supposed to assess the evidence, but simply take everything the plaintiff says at face value. In case after case, judges simply can’t help themselves.

Judges are gonna judge.

Which is how Simmons, the gay icon, wound up on the hook for $122,000, forced to pay a newspaper that lied about him, that oppressed him, that common sense says owes him an apology and a retraction, as a martyr to transgender rights. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory Keosian ruled that Simmons falsely being declared a woman did not expose him to “hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy,” so no more defamation occurred than if they had falsely described the color of his clothes.

“While, as a practical matter, the characteristic may be held in contempt by a portion of the population, the court will not validate those prejudices by legally recognizing them,” Keosian ruled.

If Simmons loses his appeal, California’s Court of Appeals will order him to pay the publications even more money.

To most people, Simmons’ case is a mere judicial curio. Not for me. I’ve taken an interest in anti-SLAPP laws since 2016. That was when the Los Angeles Times, defended by the same lawyers as the National Enquirer, filed a California anti-SLAPP motion against me. I had sued the Times for defaming me in a pair of articles they ran as a favor to the Los Angeles Police Department, which I had criticized as the paper’s editorial cartoonist, by falsely accusing me of lying and fabulism.

Like the judge in Simmons’ case, Judge Joseph Kalin failed to follow the letter of the anti-SLAPP statute. He ignored the minimal-merit standard. In his decision, he stated that the facts in the case were in my favor, not the Times. Nevertheless, he ruled against me using logic counter to the anti-SLAPP law and awarded the Times and their lawyers — the party that victimized me — $350,000. I am appealing too.

In both these cases and countless others, wealthy media conglomerates are shaking off cases that deserve their day in court before a jury, and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time from plaintiffs victimized by brazen journalistic malfeasance. Media companies might be winning in courthouses — but they’re getting clobbered in the court of public opinion.

(Ted Rall, the editorial cartoonist and columnist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.”)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: No Way Would Today’s Newspapers Publish the Pentagon Papers

Image result for katherine graham

Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Post” depicts a newspaper’s decision to defy the government, risk its financial health and imprisonment of its editors in order to report a hard truth and defend the press’ First Amendment rights by publishing the Pentagon Papers.

After the Washington Post’s decision to inform the American people that top government officials had known that the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet had repeatedly lied about it for years, editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) dumps a pile of out-of-town newspapers on a desk for publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to see. We’ve started a “rebellion,” Bradlee informs Graham. We’re no longer alone speaking truth to power.

No way would that happen today.

I was pleased to see that “The Post” highlights the pressures and biases that weighed against publication: a publisher undermined by sexism and low expectations, a paper trying to raise capital under the eye of nervous bankers, the Nixon Administration’s take-no-prisoners prosecutorial abuse by a vicious attorney general, and — not least — the Post’s cozy establishmentarianism, centered around Graham’s famous hard-drinking salons where reporters hobnobbed with the officials they were supposed to cover objectively.

After a lot of wavering and gnashing of lawyerly teeth, Graham finally makes the call: go to press.

The key point of this story, which isn’t made in the movie and few younger moviegoers are likely to be aware, is that it was her decision to make. The Graham family held controlling interest in the Washington Post Company. Great newspaper families like the Grahams, the Chandlers and the Sulzbergers were quirky and often had bad politics. But they also had something today’s corporate, publicly-traded media outlets do not: editorial freedom.

They didn’t always do the right thing. But they could. So sometimes they did.

Sadly, those days are gone.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, reportedly a right-leaning libertarian, bought the Post in late 2013. What reception would a Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers) or an Edward Snowden get if they contacted a Post reporter today, under Bezos?

Snowden’s case is indicative. The Post and three other papers published Snowden’s NSA leaks in 2013, months before Bezos took over. In 2016, the Bezos-owned Post called upon President Obama to refuse Snowden’s pardon application. In so doing, wrote Glenn Greenwald, the Post “achieved an ignominious feat in U.S. media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source — one on whose back the paper won and eagerly accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.” (The other three papers were pro-pardon.)

Even more obnoxiously, the Post’s Snowden editorial didn’t mention its major conflict of interest related to intelligence agencies like the NSA. Amazon — the Post’s sister company under Bezos — had the CIA (where Snowden also worked) as a $600 million client. That’s more than twice what Bezos paid for the Post.

Coincidence? Je pense que non.

The Los Angeles Times sells “Speaking Truth to Power” hoodies. But when the power is the LAPD — and the LAPD owns the paper — the Times publishes lies.
My regular readers are familiar with the sordid details of my 2015 firing by The Los Angeles Times as a favor to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. You’re not much of a political cartoonist in L.A. if you don’t go after the militarized, racist, violent LAPD — and the Times published many of my anti-LAPD/anti-Beck toons over the years. So did the Pasadena Weekly, which drove the boys in blue so nuts that they asked its publisher to fire me. PW refused.

Then the Times’ corporate parent, the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, hired an LAPD-connected billionaire and wannabe politician, Austin Beutner, as publisher for the Times. Beutner appears to have midwifed a deal in which the LAPD patrolmen’s $16.4 billion union retirement fund moved to a firm that invested eight figures into a fund containing Tribune stock. (Given that newspaper stocks in general and Tribune specifically had been losing value, it’s a fair assumption that the buy was more about influence than taking care of retired LAPD officers.) Within weeks — and explicitly against Times rules — the same union issued an award to Beutner for his “support [of] the LAPD in all that they do.”

Beck asked his friend Beutner to use ginned-up “evidence” to fire and smear me; Beutner, the cop-award winner, complied, and even stayed the course after the truth came out and I was vindicated. My defamation case against Beutner and the Times is in court.

The Times never disclosed to its readers about Tribune’s business relationship with the LAPD union.

It’s a level of corruption that would make Al Capone blush. Yet it’s perfectly legal in the United States for a police union to buy a newspaper. Indeed, the same union bought part of the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2009 — and leveraged its ownership to ask that the U-T fire critics of the police.

Come to think of it, isn’t it weird that a company with more than half a billion dollars in business with the CIA is allowed to own a major news organization like the Post?

Given the Trump Administration’s attacks against “fake news” and the news media, it may seem paradoxical to suggest government action as a solution to the corruption of the news media as we’re seeing at outlets like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. But the evidence is clear. Outrageous deals such as those between the Post’s owner and the CIA and between the Times’ owner and the LAPD amount to government censorship of the news media — a violation of the First Amendment’s fundamental principle.

Congress should prohibit such arrangements.

(Ted Rall’s (Twitter: @tedrall) brand-new book is “Meet the Deplorables: Infiltrating Trump America,” co-written with Harmon Leon. His next book will be “Francis: The People’s Pope,” the latest in his series of graphic novel-format biographies. Publication date is March 13, 2018. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Lawsuit Update

It has been a while since I filled you in on what’s going on with my lawsuit, so if you’ve been wondering, here’s what’s what.

The original judge in my case, Teresa Sanchez-Gordon, retired. That was a bummer for me because she seemed to understand the case and its importance, and for the most part, she ruled in my favor. LA Superior Court handed the LA Times’ anti-SLAPP motion against me over to a temporary substitute judge, a retired gentleman brought back for a few months in order to help the court dig out of its formidable backlog. Judge Joseph Kalin informed us that he had over 500 cases on his docket. He also said that he had read all of the documents in my case over the previous week. Considering that they are over a foot high and amount to thousands of pages, call me skeptical. No human being could possibly handle all that work.

Adding to the challenge was getting sabotaged by my own lawyers. Rather than send a seasoned litigator to argue the crucial anti-SLAPP hearings (of which three were scheduled), Shegerian & Associates sent a junior associate just a few of years out of law school to argue against Times attorney Kelli Sager, a veteran litigator with decades of experience at a major white-shoe law firm that represents giant corporations trying to crush workers. She was timid, unprepared and failed to fight back when Sager said things that simply weren’t true. Unsurprisingly, the judge ruled against me.

With two more hearings to go, I asked the firm to send out the litigator that we had agreed upon. Carney Shegerian responded with a Notice of Termination. That’s right: my own lawyer fired me! It’s not because I was rude or anything like that. I wasn’t. I don’t know why he did it but I do know that other lawyers tell me that this kind of behavior, dumping a client right before a crucial hearing, is highly unethical.

I managed to find a new attorney in time for the next hearing, but Judge Kalin refused to grant me a continuance to allow my new lawyer time to familiarize himself with my case, and forced me to do my own oral argument. Naturally, the Times lawyer didn’t grant me the basic courtesy of a continuance. All along, they have been playing by scorched-earth tactics.

OK, so I did better than the junior litigator: the judge acknowledged that I had told the truth about my jaywalking arrest in 2001. Which means that the Times never should have written those two articles libeling me and that they should have retracted them and that they should have hired me back immediately. Instead, Judge Kalin ruled that, as a newspaper, the First Amendment gives the Times the right to publish anything, even lies, because of the anti-SLAPP law. Strike two.

Now we go to the Court of Appeals, where we will ask the Court to reverse Judge Kalin’s ruling.

I have a sharp new legal team for the appeal: appellate attorney Jeff Lewis and trial lawyer Roger Lowenstein. We’ve been strategizing and I feel we have a strong case base on the both the content and the spirit of the law, not to mention precedent.

We are drafting our appellate brief, which for anti-SLAPP the court considers de novo, or without consideration for the lower-court ruling. Then the Times gets to respond. Then the court sets a hearing date. Best guess right now is that the appeal will be heard in mid-2018.

If we prevail at that stage, then the case really begins: discovery, subpoenas, depositions of Times employees, etc. If we lose, that’s it. And I’ll owe the Times hundreds of thousands of dollars in THEIR legal fees. Anti-SLAPP is brutal and desperately needs reform to stop these megacorporations from abusing it to crush individual plaintiffs.

In the meantime, I will be incurring substantial costs related to the case, so if you feel inclined to support my fight against the collusion between the LA Times and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, you can help out at http://gofundme.com/tedrall.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: After Charlottesville: If You Fire a Fascist, You Are a Fascist

Image result for charlottesville

No one should get fired for his political beliefs.

Not even a Nazi.

I am disturbed by the news that some of the white nationalists who attended the violent “Unite the Right” hatefest in Charlottesville last weekend are being outted on social media. Attendees have been on the receiving end of threats and doxxing. It was reported that a restaurant worker in Berkeley was canned after he was exposed on Twitter.

Needless to say — it ought to be, anyway — I hate Nazis, Klansmen and the like. Their politics and values are exactly the opposite of mine. Still, no one should get fired for parading around with torches like it’s Germany in 1933.

This isn’t a First Amendment issue. Nothing in our outdated constitution prevents an employer from firing you on account of your politics. In 2004 an Alabama company even fired a woman for having a John Kerry for President bumpersticker on her car.

It is a free speech issue.

A business has the right to control its employees’ behavior in order to protect its image. Particularly in a liberal stronghold like Berkeley but anywhere really, no one wants a waiter wearing a swastika tattoo or spouting racist views. But if Top Dog restaurant can fire a racist dude for racist views he expresses thousands of miles away, there’s nothing to prevent Google from firing a software engineer for sexism — or you for whatever you happen to believe.

Firing a worker for their politics — especially when those politics are expressed outside the workplace — is McCarthyism. McCarthyism is wrong, McCarthyism is immoral and McCarthyism ought to be illegal.

As usual during episodes like this, many of my comrades on the left are gloating over what they see as righteous payback against violent, racist, anti-Semitic thugs. This makes me very uncomfortable, and not just because it feels more like the “human flesh search engine” online vigilantism that occurs in China than the United States, where the MYOB ethos ruled pre-Internet.

I don’t deny that this is personal. My political views have gotten me targeted by a cyberstalker/identity thief, fired by a publication over a cartoon that appeared elsewhere in another venue, and defamed by a newspaper as a favor to the local police chief who’d cozied up to the paper’s publisher. I’ve been working long enough to observe that what’s popular today gets censored tomorrow, and vice versa. Top Dog gets plaudits for firing a fascist; next time the victim could be a garden-variety Democrat.

“Historically it’s more dangerous as an employee to be associated with racial justice and the NAACP, than it was to be affiliated with the KKK,” notes Walter Greason, a historian and professor at Monmouth University.

A sign posted by Top Dog management reflects a common view: “We do respect our employees’ right to their opinions,” the sign read. “They are free to make their own choices, but must accept the responsibilities of those choices.” The question is, should those “responsibilities” include being deprived of a livelihood?

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve read some variation of “You have the right to be a fascist/racist/sexist/jerk/communist, but XYZ Corp. has the right to fire you too.” Or, as Oli­ver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in 1891: “A employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed.”

True, that’s the law. What I’m arguing is that free speech will always be meaningless until the constitution is amended. Workers should be protected from retribution for what they think and say.

We live in a capitalist society. Except for those born rich, we must work or else starve. The U.S. is the only nation with at-will employment. And jobs are hard to find. Under these conditions, without workplace free-speech protections, employees must think twice before they attend a rally, post a controversial memo, join a party or slap a bumpersticker on their vehicle. Are you willing to risk unemployment, poverty and perhaps homelessness — not just you, but also your spouse and children? If the answer is “yes,” God bless you. History is made by people like you.

For many others, though, the answer is “no, I can’t afford free speech.” The upsides of free expression are intangible while the downside risks are terrifyingly brutal. A 2016 Harris poll found that 33% of U.S. employees are afraid to talk about politics at work. Increasingly workers have to worry about losing their jobs as the result of talking about politics outside of work too.

The American workplace is a fascist state. It’s time to overthrow the millions of little Hitlers who think the fact that issuing a paycheck turns their employees into slaves subject to thought control.

Just don’t talk about this around anyone who knows where you work.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: What Happened When I Represented Myself as My Own Lawyer

Image result for attorney pro se

For a cartoonist, I turned out to be a fairly decent lawyer. But I didn’t want to represent myself. It took two vicious lawyers to force me into that position.

One of those lawyers was mine.

I’m suing the Times because they repeatedly, knowingly and intentionally defamed me after firing me as a favor to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, a thin-skinned pol I’d criticized in my editorial cartoons. The paper responded by turning California’s “anti-SLAPP” law, designed to protect people like me against corporations like the Times and its parent company Tronc, on its head; this $400 million corporation is accusing me — a five-figure income cartoonist — of oppressing its First Amendment rights by using my vast wealth to intimidate them.

Before my case is allowed to begin in earnest, anti-SLAPP requires a plaintiff (me) to convince a judge that, if everything I allege in my lawsuit turns out to be true, I’d likely win before a trial jury. But anti-SLAPP is as confusing as French grammar, so many judges interpret the law much more harshly than it’s actually written.

All the lawyers I talked to told me that I’d almost certainly win at trial if my case survived anti-SLAPP and made it to a jury. Ironically, getting past anti-SLAPP would be our toughest challenge.

The lawyer who took my case agreed with this assessment. But when oral arguments for the first of the Times’ three anti-SLAPPs against me took place on June 21st in LA Superior Court, his firm inexplicably assigned a junior associate, Class of 2013, to take on Kelli Sager.

Kelli Sager, who represents the Times, is a high-powered attorney with more than three decades of courtroom experience, a senior partner at Davis Tremaine Wright, an international law firm that represents giant corporations.

I liked my junior associate. She’s smart and may someday become a great lawyer. But she was no match for a shark like Kelli Sager. Sager talked over her. My lawyer let Sager get away with one brazen lie after another, either too unprepared or timid to respond. She couldn’t even answer the judge’s simple question to walk him through what happened to prompt my lawsuit.

It was a rout. Sager was eloquent and aggressive. My lawyer couldn’t begin to articulate my case, much less sway the judge. I lost that round.

Determined not to lose the all-important important hearing number two, against the Times and Tronc, I asked my law firm to meet for a strategy session. Bafflingly, they refused to confer or to send a more senior litigator to the next one. Another defeat was guaranteed.

Then my firm fired me — days before that key anti-SLAPP hearing. I had no idea that was even a thing, that that could happen.

I swear — it wasn’t me. I was professional and polite every step of the way. I have no idea why they left me hanging.

Normally in such situations, legal experts told me, the court grants a “continuance,” legalese for a delay, to give me time to look for a new attorney and allow him or her to familiarize themselves with the case. But it helps a lot if the opposing side says they’re OK with it.

A continuance is typically freely granted, even during the most ferocious legal battles. After all, you might be the one with a family emergency or whatever next time.

But Kelli Sager smelled blood. Figuring I’d be easier to defeat without legal representation, she fought ferociously against my requests for a continuance. Thus came about the following absurdity:

I found a new lawyer. But he needed a few weeks to get up to speed. True to her standard scorched-earth approach to litigation, Sager refused to grant me the courtesy of a continuance. So I was forced to rep myself in pro per (that’s what they call pro se in California) on July 14th.

My heart was pounding as I approached the plaintiff’s table, standing parallel to Sager. And I’m an experienced speaker! I’ve held my own on FoxNews. I’ve spoken to audiences of hundreds of people. I’ve hosted talk-radio shows. Yet dropping dead of a heart attack felt like a real possibility. I can’t imagine what this would feel like for someone unaccustomed to arguing in public.

The judge asked me to proceed. I nervously worked from prepared notes, explaining why my case wasn’t a “SLAPP” (a frivolous lawsuit I didn’t intend to win, filed just to harass the Times), that the anti-SLAPP law didn’t apply. I attacked the Times’ argument that their libelous articles were “privileged” (allowed) under anti-SLAPP because they were merely “reporting” on “official police records” about my 2001 jaywalking arrest.

If they’d been “reporting,” the articles would have had to follow the Times’ Ethical Guidelines, which ban anonymous sources, require careful analysis of evidence and calling subjects of criticism for comment. They didn’t come close. These weren’t news stories or even opinion pieces; they were hit jobs.

I explained that the records weren’t official at all, the LAPD denied releasing Beck’s unprovenanced audio, which differed from the official one at LAPD HQ. Much of the discussion was about legal minutiae rather than the broad strokes of what my case is about: I wrote a blog for latimes.com, the Times edited it and posted it, Chief Beck gave the Times a blank audio they said showed I’d lied about what I wrote, I had the audio cleaned up and it showed I’d told the truth, rather than issue a retraction when they found out they were wrong the Times refused to change their behavior and continued to insist I’d lied.

There’s also the big picture: if a newspaper’s parent company sells its stock to the police, and that newspaper’s publisher is a crony of the police chief who accepts awards from the police union, how can readers trust that newspaper not to suppress criticism of the police? Do Black Lives really Matter if investigations of police brutality don’t always make it to print, if writers and cartoonists have learned they can get fired and libeled if they annoy the cops?

I will soon receive a transcript of the hearing. I will post it at Rall.com.

Sager’s counterargument boiled down to: newspapers can publish anything they want, even lies, because the First Amendment protects free speech — as if libel and defamation law don’t exist.

Her defense for the Times was not that I lied. The audio makes clear that I didn’t. Her defense, the defense for a newspaper, was that the truth doesn’t matter.

Arguments ran over two hours.

On June 21st the judge ruled against my erstwhile lawyer directly from the bench.

On July 14th, I at least gave the judge something to think about. He took the matter “under consideration.”

I await his decision.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Kathy Griffin Matters

We Americans pride ourselves on our supposed respect for free speech. In reality, however, few citizens seem to rally to the cause of freedom of expression when it’s under attack.

The latest major free-speech controversy surrounds the comedian Kathy Griffin, best known for co-hosting CNN’s coverage of New Year’s Eve celebrations at Times Square with Anderson Cooper:

Image result for kathy griffin cnn anderson cooper

Earlier this week, it came to light that a Griffin photo shoot with the photographer Tyler Shields included an image of Griffin holding up a (fake, obviously) head of President Donald Trump. The image evokes pictures of ISIS members displaying the decapitated heads of their victims:

Image result for griffin head trump

Reflecting America’s history of four presidential assassinations, there is a long-standing cultural and social taboo here against threats real or implied against a president’s life. Federal law prohibits such threats.

Reaction to Griffin’s Trump head photo was predictably swift and fierce. Politicians of both parties called for CNN to fire Griffin from her NYE gig. Trump himself tweeted: “My children, especially my 11-year-old son Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!” (It may be time, Mr. President, to monitor Barron’s access to electronic devices.) After Anderson Cooper threw his “friend” under the bus on Twitter (“completely inappropriate“), CNN fired her.

Foolishly, she felt compelled to apologize too.

Griffin hasn’t gotten much support from the creative community. One exception was the comic actor Jim Carrey. “It’s the job of the comedian to cross the line at all times,” Carrey said. “That line is not real and if you step out into that spotlight and you’re doing the crazy things that (Trump) is doing, we’re the last line of defense. The comedians are the last voice of truth in this whole thing.”

Carrey is right. Satire is a high-wire act. If it’s not dangerous, it’s not funny — it’s Jay Leno at worst, Stephen Colbert at best. Pillorying Griffin for being “inappropriate” is ridiculous. She got fired for trying to do her job. So the image was disturbing and offensive. So what? No one would have paid attention to it if had been safe and bland, like most political satire.

Now, a primer on free speech.

For a creator, there is no “line.” When I work as an editor, I tell cartoonists that it’s their job to create and mine to censor. Pitch anything, go crazy, be wild. If I approve a piece, and all hell breaks loose, the person who should be fired for poor editorial judgement is the editor, not the artist. Artists shouldn’t self-censor.

Private companies can censor. The First Amendment is narrow. It only protects us from censorship by the government. But employers like CNN can and do censor. They should be called out when they do, and censorship should always be widely condemned and despised.

CNN blacklisted Griffin. Blacklisting is the practice of firing or refusing to hire a creator for work they did for someone else. Griffin didn’t post her Trump head pic on CNN.com. She didn’t display it on a CNN broadcast. So the Trump head was not CNN’s business. What was CNN’s business was what she did on the air with Anderson Cooper at Times Square, nothing more.

Unfortunately, blacklisting is common. Sports teams have disgusting “morals clauses” that allow owners to discipline athletes for expressing themselves off the playing field; if free speech means a thing, these should be prohibited. Employers have fired employees for the political bumper sticker on their car. Gross! I was fired from a gig drawing cartoons about sex and relationships for Men’s Health by a publisher who didn’t like a cartoon I drew for newspapers about politics — and that I never submitted to MH. Unless you’re born rich, you have to work. No employer should make you think twice about expressing yourself — yes, even if you’re expression is racist or otherwise offensive. Free speech is free speech.

The quality of the censored work or artist is irrelevant. I don’t give a shit about Kathy Griffin and never thought she was that funny, though she offered undeniable random charm in her NYE appearances. (Weird randomness is an essential ingredient of successful humor.) I don’t really understand the humor in the Trump head photo. From what I gather from social media, most Americans agree with me.

But what we think of a comedian’s work is completely unrelated to whether she deserves our support.

Remember when my colleague Garry Trudeau criticized the quality and content of the cartoons drawn by artists murdered by gunmen at the office of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo? The effect of Trudeau’s remarks was to support ISIS against cartoonists, and to partially justify the slaughter. Whenever a value as fundamental as free expression is under attack, people of good conscience must rally to defend it, no matter the content. Though disgusted by Islamophobia, I was appalled by the attempt of two ISIS gunmen to murder right-wing anti-Muslim cartoonists in Texas in 2015. I condemned liberal attempts to get right-wing radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger fired, even though Rush has personally slimed me. When I had my radio show in Los Angeles, I took heat from pro-censorship liberals for bringing white supremacist David Duke on the air for a vigorous debate.

Reading this, some readers will say: you can say anything you want, but you don’t have the right to demand that someone hire you (or not fire you) if you do. This is sophistry.

In a capitalist society, you work or you starve to death. So, under our present system — you can be fired for saying stuff your boss doesn’t like, even stuff you say at home, not at work — your employer effectively has the right to kill you if your expression causes him (or his customers) offense. Most people aren’t rich enough not to have to worry about this. So they censor themselves.

By definition, therefore, we do not live in a free society. We are not free to say what we want, to be who we want to be.

Until we come to our senses and elevate freedom of expression to a true inalienable right that cannot be infringed upon by anyone or any entity, the only way to fight for free speech is to condemn censorship when we see it — especially when it’s incredibly clear and obvious.

Griffin’s situation is such a case.

The expression in question was clearly political speech. (Again, whether you thought it was tasteless or not is irrelevant.)

Griffin was fired by one employer, CNN — her highest profile gig — for something she did far away from CNN. This is blacklisting at its most McCarthyist, and must not be tolerated.

Citing Griffin’s Senator and former comic Al Franken said her “real, fulsome apology” means that, eventually, she may be able to recover from the Trump flap. A society in which a long-time professional comedian could be destroyed by one flop of a joke is not one that ought to be lecturing other countries about how it values freedom of speech.

Finally, Trump has this sort of satire coming. I’m not going to recite the President’s litany of disgusting statements and remarks about women, overweight people, Mexicans, and so on. The man is a colossal asshole. Instead let’s address the quaint notion that images of presidents and gruesome death shouldn’t mix.

Like his predecessors, Trump routinely orders airstrikes and drone strikes against countless innocent people. He has already murdered hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in the Middle East and South Asia. Shouldn’t we fire this guy, who actually causes real people to lose their real, actual bloodied heads, instead of Kathy Griffin?

mosul.jpg

Rall v. LA Times: Lawsuit Update

Here’s the latest on my defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times.

At the first of three hearings to consider the Times’ anti-SLAPP motions against me, the judge in the case chastised both the Times’ and my attorneys for violating court rules governing page counts.

The problem began because Times’ attorney Kelli Sager submitted a 27.5 page anti-SLAPP motion against me, asking the court to dismiss my suit and award the Times’ its six-figure legal bill. Court rules limit the page count to 15.

We adhered to the 15-page limit, but it wasn’t possible to reply to 27.5 pages of argument with 15 pages. So in order to effectively counter the Times’ 27.5 page motion, we used a smaller font size.

According to Law360.com: “At the start of the hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon announced she was continuing the hearings on all three motions to future dates and asked that the parties respectively submit amended court filings ‘in compliance with court’s rules and without appendices and footnotes.’ The refiled documents should not exceed 20 pages, she said. ‘I just want both of you to adhere to the California Rules of Court, that’s all I’m saying,’ Judge Sanchez-Gordon said. ‘I’m continuing this because I could not get through [them], I’m sorry.'”

Both the Times and I will resubmit revised anti-SLAPP and opposition to anti-SLAPP motions, respectively, to the court for hearings to be held in June and July.

“Many cartoonists in the States will watch what ensues with interest, considering it a timely test of the First Amendment,” reports Cartoonist Rights Network International.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Sue the SOBs? It’s Harder Than You Think

8-15-16

Are you one of those Americans who say it’s too easy to file a lawsuit? As I can tell you from personal experience, it’s anything but. The canard that U.S. courts are jammed up by litigious jerks is based on anecdotes spread by corporate propaganda.

We do need “tort reform” — but we should make it easier to sue, not harder.

What about all those “frivolous lawsuits” you’re always hearing about? You hear about them because deep-pocketed corporations run TV ads complaining that they’re being victimized by predatory trial lawyers. The truth is, big companies don’t want to be held accountable in the courts for their misdeeds.
What most people don’t know is that judges are good at ferreting out frivolous lawsuits before they get very far. If you get sued, the first thing your defense lawyer will do is file a “motion for summary judgment” — a request that the judge throw out the case because it’s weak. Between this and other methods of winnowing out bad cases, at least 95% of civil claims never make it to trial.

The dirty secret is that American courts have created so many hurdles to sue that it’s become daunting for all but the most determined plaintiffs to pursue justice. My case against The Los Angeles Times illustrates how hard it is for an individual to sue a large entity.

The Times fired me as its editorial cartoonist in July 2015, apparently as a favor to LAPD’s police chief, whom I had mocked in my cartoons.

Neither I nor Times readers were aware that there was a conflict of interest between the paper and the fuzz: the LAPD’s union pension fund was a major shareholder of the Times’ parent company.

It ought to be illegal for a government agency or an entity associated with a government agency to buy stock in a media company — but it isn’t.

The Times published an article accusing me of having lied in a blog post. I was able to show that I’d told the truth. But after I sent the Times the exonerating evidence — which attracted worldwide media attention and calls for my reinstatement — instead of issuing a retraction and giving me back my job, Times executives doubled down, publishing a second piece reaffirming the first one. In March 2016, I filed suit in LA Superior Court against the Times for defamation, wrongful termination, blacklisting and other charges.

As I expected, the Times’ defense attorney filed a motion to dismiss my case on the grounds that it was not meritorious. The judge denied.

After that, California’s legal and financial hurdles became nearly insurmountable.
When free speech groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation get behind something, I’m usually all for it. The First Amendment is my religion. But speech advocates’ support for a federal anti-SLAPP law is wrong — and terrible for freedom of expression. Perhaps they haven’t thought this all the way through.

Twenty-eight states and D.C. have passed anti-SLAPP laws. On paper, they sound great. A “SLAPP” (strategic lawsuit against public participation) is a lawsuit the plaintiff doesn’t think he’ll actually win. The purpose of a SLAPP is to harass you by forcing you to hire a lawyer and tie you up in court. It’s an intimidation tactic sometimes used by big companies to silence individual whistleblowers and critics. Is the problem really widespread? No one knows. No one has done a serious study.

If you get sued in a state with an anti-SLAPP statute, your anti-SLAPP motion is a powerful tool. Discovery (depositions, subpoenaing of evidence) halts. If the judge rules in the defendant’s favor that a suit is frivolous, the case gets tossed and the plaintiff pays the defendant’s attorney fees. This is supposed to make jerky plaintiffs think twice before filing a SLAPP.

There are two big problems with this theory.

First, anti-SLAPP isn’t likely to deter frivolous SLAPPs filed by wealthy companies and individuals. Wealthy entities have more than enough money to litigate anti-SLAPP and to absorb the potential awarding of attorney’s fees to defendants. In fact, proponents have never come up with any statistical evidence that anti-SLAPP laws deter frivolous lawsuits.

Second, the intent of anti-SLAPP laws — to protect the little guy from the big guys — is constitutionally prohibited. You can’t grant rights to some defendants but not others; there are plaintiffs and defendants, period. So there’s nothing to prevent a rich megacorporation from using anti-SLAPP against Joe Schmoe.

Which is how the LA Times, the fourth largest newspaper in the U.S. and part of a $512 million media conglomerate, was allowed to file an anti-SLAPP motion against a $300/week cartoonist. In other words, the Times censored my cartoons and tried to ruin my journalistic career for their owners, the police. Then they accused me of violating their First Amendment rights!

Starting with their anti-SLAPP motion, Times’ lawyers have unleashed a barrage of tactics to delay my suit and harass me. And it’s worked — for nearly a year, I haven’t been able to question Times editors or LAPD officials under oath or subpoena documents that would help me build my case — or my defense to the anti-SLAPP motion. I’ll get my case before a jury in 2018 or 2019 — if I’m lucky.

Or I’ll be broke.

Three days of anti-SLAPP hearings in Rall v. Los Angeles Times begin February 28th in LA Superior Court. My attorneys spent many hours preparing our opposition to that motion. Legal fees aren’t cheap, so the expense of defending against an anti-SLAPP filing before the case even begins is enough to deter some plaintiffs from filing valid lawsuits.

If the judge rules for the Times, I’ll be ordered to pay the Times their legal fees. The Times told the court their bills would be at least $300,000. If she rules for me, the Times can and probably will appeal to the Court of Appeals. That means more work for me and my lawyers and months, maybe another year, of delay — and justice delayed is justice denied. If the appellate court agrees with the Times, my case gets thrown out and I’ll have to pay the Times’ bills — which by then will be significantly higher.

I know I’m right. And I think the law is on my side. But by filing a lawsuit in an anti-SLAPP state, I’m risking bankruptcy. How many would-be plaintiffs get scared away from pursuing their legitimate claims? How many defendants get away with illegal behavior by abusing anti-SLAPP laws?

Anti-SLAPP opens the door to unfair defense tactics. LA Times lawyers invoked an obscure California statute to require me, as a non-California resident, to post a cash bond to guarantee the Times’ legal bills if they win on anti-SLAPP. They asked for $300,000; the judge knocked it down to $75,000. Just to keep my case going — before it begins, really — 75 grand was the cost of entry.

Thanks to concerned readers who gave to my GoFundMe campaign, I raised the $75,000. After I turned over the money to a bond company who filed it with the court (more fees there), the Times tried to get the case thrown out on the ground that the form hadn’t been filled out perfectly.

Still think it’s too easy to sue?

There’s hope for change. In 2015 Washington State became the first state to find its anti-SLAPP statute unconstitutional because it denies plaintiffs their fundamental right to a trial by jury. Anti-SLAPP, the Washington Supreme Court ruled, “seeks to protect one group of citizen’s constitutional rights of expression and petition — by cutting off another group’s constitutional rights of petition and jury trial.” Minnesota and D.C. may do the same.

Congress should pass a federal law about this — one that bans anti-SLAPP laws.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

You Did It! $75,000 Crowdfunding Effort Succeeds, LA Times Court Bond Filed

YOU DID IT!

746 people.

$75,390.

Thanks to you, we beat back the Times’ despicable attempt to deny me a chance to prove my case in court.

Thank you so much.

Below I am posting an image of the bond filed at LA Superior Court. Amazing that so much money buys you such a crappy piece of paper! I was expecting a wax seal and gold embossing.

Here’s what happens next:

Additional donations up to $80,000 will help cover the 5% GoFundMe fee of $75,000 x .05 = $3750, plus the $1250 bond company fee, for a total of $5000.

Donations over $80,000, if any, will be applied to legal expenses such as flying from New York to Los Angeles to consult with my attorneys and to attend hearings.

At a hearing on Tuesday, August 23, the judge will be informed that we filed the required bond. That means the case moves forward. Thank you!!!

The Times’ anti-SLAPP motion is currently scheduled to be heard in March 2017. (The court could change the hearing date.) We will use the months between now and then to draft our defense to their anti-SLAPP motion.

If the judge rules for the Times, I will be hit with a judgement for the Times’ legal fees, which are expected to reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. The $75,000 bond would be applied toward that balance. The Times will go after me for the rest.

If the judge rules in our favor, the Times has the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals. Given their contemptuous behavior so far, we expect them to do that. We don’t know how long it would take to get a hearing date.

Again, if the Court of Appeals rules in the Times’ favor on anti-SLAPP, the Times will go after me for their legal fees.

If the Court of Appeals rules for me, however, we move forward toward trial in LA Superior Court on the fundamental issues of this case: wrongful termination, blacklisting, defamation, etc. We begin discovery, depositions. Finally, there is a court date.

After a verdict, of course, the  system provides for appeals to higher courts.

I am prepared for a long fight against an intransigent and unrepentant adversary, a corporate conglomerate without a conscience. I am mentally and physically strong. I have stamina and a lot of energy. Most of all, I have the truth on my side.

I want two things:

Accountability for Austin Beutner, Nick Goldberg, Paul Pringle, Deirdre Edgar, the Times, and Tronc. No one should be allowed to get away with what they did.

Exposing the corrupt relationship between the Times and the LAPD, and more generally between the press and the police, and government. In our system, you have to be rich or have (as I do) a public platform in order to get justice. It’s incumbent upon those few Americans who have the chance to fight back to show people what the system is really about: cozy backroom deals by the elites, who are determined to protect their privilege at the expense of the rest of us.

======================================
Here is the court filing document, filed Tuesday at LA Superior Court. When we realized that it would take 2-5 business days for GoFundMe to release funds and perhaps an additional full business day for the bond company to issue the bond and get it filed, a very generous friend of a friend stepped forward with a very short-term loan so we could get it filed by today’s deadline. He was certain that this fundraiser would succeed. He had blind faith — in you, in me, that justice would prevail.

He’ll be repaid by early next week, after the GoFundMe money hits my account.

Bond

BondStamp