Tag Archives: freedom of expression

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.)

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Jihadi Art Critics Circle

Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip "Doonesbury," gave an acceptance speech for a Polk journalism award at which he criticized the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for creating work that was insensitive to Islam, crossed the line, and thus brought a "world of pain" upon France.

Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip “Doonesbury,” gave an acceptance speech for a Polk journalism award at which he criticized the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for creating work that was insensitive to Islam, crossed the line, and thus brought a “world of pain” upon France.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: 54% of the Time, Americans Aren’t Protected by the First Amendment

http://images.bwbx.io/cms/2012-08-03/0803_freespeech_630x420.jpg

 

Of Hicks, Duck Dynasty and Free Speech

“Don’t talk about politics or religion.” It’s boilerplate advice, especially this time of year when family members and friends with varying cultural outlooks gather to break (if you’re a California liberal, gluten-free) bread.

Keeping your opinions to yourself is smart if your priority is conflict avoidance. But keeping the peace makes for seriously boring holiday meals.

Aside from the tense tedium of forced blandness, all that self-censorship accomplishes is to paper over conflicts and differences everyone knows or suspects are there anyway. Nothing gets resolved.

To the contrary, self-censorship enables bad ideas. Unchallenged year after year, the stupid people at the table return to their stupid homes as confident as ever in their stupid opinions, no matter how indefensible.

We are seeing the no-politics dictum play itself out with increasing frequency on a national level, with dismaying implications for freedom of expression.

This week we’re talking about “Duck Dynasty,” a reality TV show I haven’t watched. Phil Robertson, the ZZ Top-bearded patriarch of a Louisiana clan who struck it rich with a gadget that calls ducks, is the show’s star. He’s also a hick. Like many other hicks, Robertson holds stupid opinions about gays and blacks, which he expressed in media interviews.

After people complained about Robertson’s stupid thoughts, A&E “suspended” Robertson. He may or may not come back to the show.

Right-wingers, including ferret-faced Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and intellectual beacon Sarah Palin, played to their bigoted Republican base, issuing strident electronic missives decrying Robertson’s maybe-firing on the grounds of free speech. MSNBC and other Democratic Party mouthpieces responded in kind with a talking point that many Americans remember conservatives using against lefties during the Bush years: the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right not to be fired.

“Yes, everyone is entitled to express his or her views,” Jill Filipovic wrote in The Guardian. “Not everyone is entitled to keep their jobs, though, if they decide to express views that are entirely odious and potentially costly to their employer.”

The same (used to be right-wing) left-wing talking point, cacophonously defending the capitalist “right” of bosses to shut up their workers, cropped up all over mainstream liberal outlets.

We’re again witnessing an odious truism: Americans defend free speech they agree with and sign on to the suppression of that they dislike. What if, instead of filling GQ magazine in on his far-right bigotry, Phil Robertson had gotten himself maybe-fired over an interview in which he expressed views that put him to the left of “mainstream”? What if, for example, he’d said instead that all Republicans are racists and homophobes? It’s a safe bet that joints like MSNBC and The Guardian would have denounced A&E for censoring him, and that Rush Limbaugh et al. would be the ones trotting out the “you can say whatever you want but you don’t have a right to get paid for it” bromides.

These free speech battles inevitably break down along partisan lines — but it’s dumb and hypocritical and needs to stop.

Let’s dispense with this sophistry that prevents us from getting to the meat of the matter. Yes, obviously, the First Amendment doesn’t apply. There is no legal issue. Under the law, A&E can fire Robertson.

The question is: should he be fired/suspended?

Should any employer be able to fire you because they dislike what you say?

On that point, my answer is 100%, unequivocally, no way.

“The right to freely speak your mind without government interference is crucial,” allows Filipovic in her essay. “But few of us are permitted in the course of our employment to say whatever we want without consequence from our employer.”

Legally, that’s true. To which I ask: why the hell not?

Americans spend 54% of their waking hours at work. What good is a First Amendment that ends at the keycard door? (Maybe we should rename it the Half Amendment.)

As someone who has lost gigs because I said something that someone didn’t like — usually about politics or religion — I’ve spent a lot of time imagining an America in which workers could express themselves freely. Try as I might, I don’t see the world falling apart if — I’m going to go extreme here — the bald guy at the hardware store turns out to be a Nazi skinhead — after all, the dude was a Nazi all along, right? If anything, it would be good to see him wearing a Nazi badge because, assuming I have the guts to confront him, there would then be a chance that someone could argue him into a better political place.

If you can be fired for expressing yourself at work — or, as in Robertson’s case, not at work, in an interview, which means that for him, 100% of waking hours are an A&E censorship zone — then free speech is a meaningless abstraction that applies only to the tiny fraction of superrich Americans who don’t have to worry about getting fired.

“It sounds nice in theory to say, ‘Walk away, and look for another job,’ ” says Lewis Maltby of the National Workplace Institute. “But in practice, most people just can’t take that risk. They just put up with it.” Which is why the American workplace is a fascist state. “In Arizona, you can be fired for using birth control,” noted The Guardian in 2012. “If you live in any one of 29 states, you can be fired for being gay. You can be fired for being a fan of the Green Bay Packers if your boss roots for the Bears.” Many workers have gotten fired for off-the-cuff tweets.

Because it’s legal to fire louts like Robertson for mouthing off, it’s legal to fire you too, for saying just about anything, no matter innocuous. In his 2007 book “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace,” Bruce Barry documents countless examples of people losing their jobs over banal political speech — for example, having a John Kerry bumpersticker on their car.

Any judgment about A&E’s action on “Duck Dynasty” has to consider the result.
What, exactly do the “social justice warriors” who led the charge against Robertson win if they succeed in getting him fired, or “Duck Dynasty” taken off the air?

I doubt they’ll change Robertson’s mind about gays or blacks. You can’t bully someone into political correctness. The cure to the illogic of bigotry is logical argument. Which requires more effort than organizing an Internet pile-on. All that PC bloggers get out of Robertson’s suspension is a “victory” that makes them feel good. But it diminishes society’s racism and homophobia not one iota.

Bigotry can also give way to experience — like the time a vanload of big black guys with gang tatts emerged from their vehicle, carrying tire irons, while my car was broken down in bad-old-1980s-days Bedford-Stuyvesant. They fixed me up and sent me on the way — after refusing a tip. Robertson obviously needs to spend some time with some LGBT people and people of color.

Getting someone fired, on the other hand, isn’t exactly a recipe for making new friends.

For Robertson and everyone else, the message is clear: keep your politics to yourself, and you’ll be OK. Unless, of course, your politics happen to coincide with whatever happens to be acceptable to whatever happens to be mainstream at a given time — which can, and eventually will, change — and bite you on the ass. So yeah, if you value your paycheck, shut up.

A society in which the workplace is a zero free speech zone is not free. A nation without the free exchange of ideas, where everyone can express themselves without fear of economic retribution, is not — cannot be — a democracy.

The First Amendment should be amended to include the workplace.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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