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.
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.”)