Thank you to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for filing an Amicus Letter in my case against the LA Times and in favor of free speech with the California State Supreme Court! Anti-SLAPP laws should not be abused by giant corporations to stifle free expression.
I have written extensively about my lawsuit against the LA Times. As I prepare for the next, do-or-die, stage of my case, it’s time to explain why Rall v. Los Angeles Times et al. has broad implications beyond me personally.
Freedom of the press is at stake.
The subtle yet fundamental question here is: who needs freedom of the press? The obvious answer is journalists: reporters and pundits. But journalists’ freedom to report and editorialize is in grave danger from a surprising enemy: their employers.
Once was, reporters like Woodward and Bernstein were on the same side as their employers. In this age of corporate aggregation of newspapers and other media outlets by publicly-traded media corporations and individual billionaires, however, newspapers and other media outlets are often compromised by their quest for profits, as the LA Times’ parent company was when it allowed its stock to be sold to the LAPD pension fund. In this struggle the media companies have framed themselves as guardians of press freedom at the expense of journalists, ironically securing the power to screw journalists in the guise of First Amendment protections.
If the California Supreme Court refuses to hear my case — which is probably what will happen — or hears it and rules for the Times’ anti-SLAPP motion against me, the court will send a chilling message to journalists and pundits across the country. Most Americans, and most reporters, live in states with anti-SLAPP statutes modeled on California’s.
The threat to journalists is unmistakable: rock the boat and you risk being destroyed.
Write an article critical of a powerful institution like the LAPD, the nation’s highly militarized, largest and most brutal police forces, controlling a $16 billion pension fund, and they can pull strings to get you fired. It can also happen in a tiny town like Baker City, Oregon.
Even worse, you can’t find another job because they use falsified “evidence” to smear your reputation for honesty. Even if you can prove that it’s BS — as I did — media companies use their editorial endorsements of jurists and politicians to rig the courts with their allies so you, the victim, get dunned hundreds of thousands of dollars for the villainous media company’s legal fees!
I have advice for journalists thinking about covering police abuse: don’t. The price for doing your job — termination, defamation and bankruptcy — isn’t worth it.
If I could go back to 2015 when the LAPD-owned LA Times trashed my reputation in service to a thin-skinned police chief, I would not draw or write anything about the cops. It’s too dangerous.
I have learned how big media companies have stacked the bench with sympathetic judges, lobbied for laws that protect them from accountability for breaking the law and used their influence to crush individual journalists for such crimes as reporting the news or having worked long enough to earn a high salary. The system doesn’t even pretend to be fair. Many judges are former prosecutors; how can they justify not recusing themselves from cases involving the cops?
Now there is a $330,000 judgment against me for having the gall to defend my reputation in court. Unless the California Supreme Court overrules it, that judgment will be final and will grow bigger. Journalists and pundits aren’t covering my case — they’re afraid, as they ought to be — but they are watching. If the judgment stands, who will be stupid enough to take on the LAPD or similar institution?
As if the chilling effect on journalists wasn’t enough reason to watch my case, the Times is arguing (so far, successfully) that media companies should no longer extend protections against discrimination by gender, age and sexual orientation to their workers. Unless the court overturns the lower court rulings against me, the door will be pushed open for the Times and other California media corporations to fire, say, its African-American or transgender employees without redress in the courts.
Then there’s the damage to defamation law. For hundreds of years it has been possible for a person wrongfully slimed by a news publication to go to court to try to clear their name. Abusive anti-SLAPP motions have made a mockery of libel law to the point that the National Enquirer, represented by the same lawyer as the Times, falsely claimed Richard Simmons had become a transsexual woman and Simmons was ordered to pay $130,000 to the Enquirer!
It should be challenging to sue for libel, not impossible.
“The quote/unquote truth doesn’t matter,” Los Angeles Times/National Enquirer lawyer Kelli Sager said in court. So far, she’s been right. Judges have bent over backwards to believe the Times’ many lies and ignore the plain truth right in front of them. Hopefully a court outside LA will let me get my day in court.
(Ted Rall, the 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.)
I was wronged. All I wanted was a trial by jury, a right enshrined in Anglo-Saxon legal tradition in the Magna Carta 803 years ago.
Is this still America? No. America is dead.
Not only have I been denied that fundamental right, I have been punished for having had the temerity to seek redress in the courts.
Justice is when wrongdoers are punished and victims are compensated. Instead, the California court system has provided Anti-Justice. The wrongdoers are getting off scot-free. I, the victim, am not merely being ignored or brushed off. I am being actively punished.
The ruling in Ted Rall v. Los Angeles Times et al. came down last week. The California Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the Times’ “anti-SLAPP” motion against me. Anti-SLAPP law supporters, including the Times, say they’re supposed to be used by poor individuals to defend their First Amendment rights against big companies. But that’s BS. The Times—owned by the $500 million Tronc corporation when I filed suit, now owned by $7 billion biotechnology entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong—abused anti-SLAPP to destroy me.
My case was simple. I drew cartoons mocking the LAPD and then-Chief Charlie Beck for the Times, criticizing them for abusing people of color and the poor. A new publisher, Beck’s pal, took over. Beck asked publisher Austin Beutner to fire me and to smear me so I couldn’t work anymore. So the Times ran two pieces announcing that I’d been fired, not for offending Beck—violating their own Ethical Guidelines, they kept his identity secret—but for supposedly lying in a blog post discussing a jaywalking arrest in 2001. I hadn’t lied. I told the truth. And I proved it.
“One hell of a defamation case,” a lawyer told me. Another, a top expert on libel, said: “If you don’t win your case, defamation law in California is dead.”
But as the Times’ lawyer kept saying in court, “the quote/unquote truth doesn’t matter.” She was right. What mattered were power, money and influence.
The ruling means my case will probably never go to trial. The court has already ordered me to pay $330,000 to the Times for their legal fees because hey, a guy with $7 billion obviously needs and deserves to get cash from a cartoonist the Times used to pay $300 a week. That sum will definitely be higher—perhaps double—by the time the Times files the rest of its padded legal fees.
I will never get discovery, which means neither I nor the readers of the Times will ever learn the details about how then-publisher Austin Beutner (now superintendent of LA schools, where teachers are on strike because Beutner doesn’t want to give them a proper raise) arranged for the LAPD pension fund to become #1 shareholder of the Times’ parent company. Neither I nor the readers of the Times will ever know just how deep the corruption between the LA Times and the LAPD went, or to what extent the Times agreed to provide police-friendly coverage.
For me personally the ruling necessarily means bankruptcy and/or being forced to leave the United States so I can continue to earn a living. This used to be the kind of thing that happened to journalists in other countries, not the U.S. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even get the ACLU behind me—because they don’t want to be seen as opposing the anti-SLAPP law.
I’m much luckier than Jamal Khashoggi—though the scorched-earth litigation tactics and lies deployed by National Enquirer/LA Times attorney Kelli Sager makes me pretty sure they would do the same thing to me if they could get away with it.
But the court’s real message isn’t directed toward me. What the court did in brazen deference to the LAPD and the LA Times and in direct opposition of the law was to send a message to journalists in California: do not mess with the cops and do not mess with a newspaper owned by the cops.
If you do your jobs, we will crush you.
At a time when reporters who still get to work are grateful to merely see their salaries slashed rather than join the ranks of the unemployed, you’d have to be a total goddamned idiot to criticize law enforcement.
There is one last slim reed of hope: the California Supreme Court. I am petitioning the high court to reverse the Court of Appeal’s anti-SLAPP ruling. But the odds are long. They hear fewer than five percent of appeals.
During his confirmation hearing Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh said that as a judge he wanted even the losing side to come out of the process feeling that his side had been heard and carefully considered.
I feel the opposite.
Since the start of my case it has been painfully obvious that the fix was in. As the plaintiff and as the victim of deliberate and repeated libel on behalf of one of the most corrupt police agencies in the country, I was the aggrieved party. Yet the courts treated me just like the Times did when they canned me: I was guilty until proven innocent and guilty even after having been proven innocent.
Pretzel logic has been a constant since 2015, when Beutner’s Times ran a piece about me which read that “a man and a woman can be heard speaking in the background at one point, but only a few of their words are intelligible…[they] appear to be having a conversation unrelated to the jaywalking stop.” Hey morons: if you can’t hear what they’re saying, how can you hear what they’re not saying?
The court’s ruling was no more intelligent.
The anti-SLAPP law requires judges to consider a theoretical construct at the anti-SLAPP stage of a case. Without judging the evidence, assume that the plaintiff’s case is 100% as presented, 100% accurate, all his evidence 100% true. Then assume that nothing the defense says is true. Would there be a smidge of a case there? If yes, the case moves forward.
As in many other anti-SLAPP cases, the judges didn’t even pretend to do that.
When my attorney Jeffrey Lewis mentioned that basic aspect of anti-SLAPP during oral arguments (listen here), the judges reacted as though they’d never heard such a thing before! Times lawyer Sager knew Lewis was correct which is why she didn’t touch the issue in her rebuttal. Yet the ruling in favor of the defendants didn’t mention, much less rebut the evidence rule. To the contrary: the justices ignored my arguments and evidence, assuming everything I said to be false. And they took everything the Times said, not at face value—because anyone reading the pieces could tell they were false—but beyond, crediting their goodwill beyond even what the Times alleged in its defense (for example, saying that the Times sent my enhanced audio for professional analysis, something the Times never claimed).
A couple decades ago I wrote that the court system was the last functional branch of government, the final resting place of the proposition that injustice could be addressed even when the villain was powerful. Perhaps I was right then. It certainly isn’t true now.
Any American who trusts the court system is a fool.
(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.)
More care goes into the making of a sandwich.
That’s what I was thinking last Thursday as I watched oral arguments in the California Court of Appeals in Los Angeles.
Case after case came before a three-judge panel. They concerned a variety of matters. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, were at stake. More importantly, so were hard-built professional careers and reputations. With so much that mattered hanging in the balance, you’d hope to see these cases handled with sensitivity, decorum and thoughtfulness—and you’d be sorely disappointed.
There was a real estate deal gone wrong that I would have needed to read up on in order to understand. A physician was resisting a subpoena for his patients’ records filed by the state medical board, which suspected him of overprescribing opioids. And there was me, former editorial cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, defending myself from an “anti-SLAPP” motion that, if successful, would end my lawsuit before it began and bankrupt me with a court order for me—the victim—to pay the Times hundreds of thousands of dollars for their legal fees.
It ought to be illegal for a police department to own a newspaper. But it’s not. In 2015 the LAPD pension fund was a major shareholder of Tribune Publishing, owner of the Times. Annoyed at my cartoons about him, then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck asked the Times then-publisher Austin Beutner, now LA schools superintendent, to fire me as a political favor. He did. Beck also wanted my reputation destroyed so I could never work again, in order to send a message to journalists: don’t mess with the LAPD. Beutner, Beck’s political ally and a man with ambitions to become mayor or governor, complied by ordering that the paper publish two libelous articles about me portraying me as a liar.
The second one was published after I proved I had told the truth.
I sued for defamation and wrongful termination in 2016.
Since then Times attorney Kelli Sager, who also represents the National Enquirer in its smear of gay icon Richard Simmons, has waged a scorched-earth litigation campaign designed to intimidate, harass and delay my quest to clear my name. Sager filed the anti-SLAPP, a law designed to be used by individuals to defend themselves against powerful corporate entities, against me. She convinced the court to force me to pay $75,000 just to be able to continue my case for something called a “Section 1030”—a law whose intent is to discriminate against out-of-state plaintiffs (I live in New York.) Last week, during oral arguments in open court, she compared me to a “pedophile.”
Last summer the lower court in L.A. ruled against me on the anti-SLAPP, saying that even though I showed that I was truthful and the Times was not, I must pay $330,000 (as of then) in legal fees to the Times. I appealed, which is why I was in court last Thursday.
We knew it was going to be tough. Shortly beforehand the court issued a “tentative opinion” that indicated the Court of Appeals planned to buy Sager’s arguments lock, stock and barrel. Those arguments were lengthy and complicated but they could be summarized as: the First Amendment allows newspapers to publish anything they want, the truth doesn’t much matter and if you slap a veneer of officialdom on libel—in this case, the Times claimed, it was merely reporting on what the LAPD said about me—it becomes “privileged,” i.e. inactionable.
My attorney Jeff Lewis emphasized several points.
First, he pointed out, the tentative opinion disregarded California anti-SLAPP case law that requires that I be given the benefit of the doubt, not the Times, when considering their anti-SLAPP motion. In Overstock.com, Inc. v. Gradient Analytics, Inc. (2007), for example, the court ruled that “the plaintiff’s burden of establishing a probability of prevailing is not high: We do not weigh credibility, nor do we evaluate the weight of the evidence. Instead, we accept as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff and assess the defendant’s evidence only to determine if it defeats the plaintiff’s submission as a matter of law.” The tentative opinion was rife with references to my supposed (in)credibility and purported to evaluate the evidence presented.
The justices seemed surprised by Jeff’s argument. They asked him to cite case law examples. He did. They wrote them down.
I hope they take notice and change tack, still, anti-SLAPP motions are commonplace in California courts. How could any judge be unaware of important cases like Overstock or the standard that plaintiffs get the benefit of the doubt in anti-SLAPP?
Jeff countered the Times’ argument that they were merely passing on what the LAPD records given to them said. It matters because “fair and true” journalistic reports about government records are “privileged.” Much of the Times’ hit pieces against me concerned the Times’ own cursory sham investigation of me. One judge asked Sager whether the Times was arguing that both the LAPD and the Times’ references were privileged. Sager repeated that the LAPD ones were, repeatedly ignoring the Times question until, after being pressed, she played dumb, insulting the court’s intelligence by pretending not to understand the issue.
No one pressed her on that or on her “pedophile” remark. Whereas the judges expressed great concern for the reputation of the doctor in the previous case about overprescribing, none spoke against comparing a cartoonist to a pedophile, further slandering me.
Jeff asked why the court’s tentative ruling ignored our most important anti-SLAPP case law precedent, Wilson v. CNN. There was no clear answer. Whether it was intentional or they forgot, people have been fired from far less prestigious jobs for considerably less shoddy work.
Lewis asked the court to consider the chilling message they would send to journalists at news outlets like the Times if they ruled for the Times against me: if you criticize the LAPD, you can be destroyed even though you did nothing wrong. And you can’t sue. There is no redress. There is no justice.
We await the court’s ruling.
UPDATE: Listen to the oral arguments here:
(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.)
Now we’re waiting for the court to rule. Guesstimate is that it will happen in early 2019. If they rule for me (the plaintiff in Ted Rall v. LA Times et al.), anti-SLAPP is no longer an issue, the Times is out of stalling tactics, and we begin discovery: subpoenaing the Times’ secret documents and deposing their employees in preparation for trial in LA Superior Court.
If they rule for the Times (the defendant), my defamation and wrongful termination case ends. I will have to pay the Times hundreds of thousands of dollars in their padded $715-an-hour fees.
More importantly, losing my case would be a major defeat for anyone who works for what a California court defines as an employer of a “media company” with First Amendment rights: a newspaper, a magazine, a website, a social media platform, any number of Silicon Valley tech companies. If I lose, it means the Times’ argument that they can defame, retaliate and discriminate against their employers — even for sexist, racist or homophobic reasons — would become case law. Any “media” company in the state would become exempt from these important protections.
That’s why I’m fighting so hard. It’s not just for me. Tens of thousands of California workers, most of whom have never heard of me or my case, are in danger of losing their rights because of the Times’ reckless arguments.
In summer 2017 the Times won its abusive anti-SLAPP motions against me in LA Superior Court. We believe that Court made a number of errors in its decision that will be corrected when the Court of Appeals considers my case “de novo” — without considering the decision of the lower court.
Earlier this summer we filed our Opening Brief in the Court of Appeals. The Times filed its Respondents Brief. Now we’ve filed our response to their brief. There will be no more filings.
Next the Court will schedule oral arguments. They will either rule from the bench right there and then or issue their decision in writing shortly thereafter.
Some of you have asked whether Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong, the biotechnology entrepreneur and physician who purchased the Times earlier this year, has tried to resolve my case. The answer is no. Upon acquiring the Times Dr. Soon-Shiong said he intended to turn over a new leaf at an institution infamous for mismanagement and corruption; we still have yet to see any sign of improvement.
Thank you for your support. The fight for a free press continues.
I sued the LA Times for wrongful termination and defamation in 2016. The Times responded with an anti-SLAPP motion asking the court to order me to pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars in their legal fees. They prevailed at the trial court level.
In 2017 I filed my anti-SLAPP appeal to the California Court of Appeals. Now the Times has responded to my appeal with their own brief.
Here are the relevant documents:
My Opening Brief for my anti-SLAPP appeal:
The Times’ Respondents Brief:
Now we are working on our response to their response. We will post our response brief here after it is finished and filed. After we file that, the court will advise of a date when they will hear my anti-SLAPP appeal.
Obviously my attorneys and I have thoughts about the Times’ arguments as stated in their brief, but Times attorney Kelli Sager reads my blog (hi!) so it would be unwise for me to say anything here about what we think.
However, thousands of heads are better than three! We might be missing something important in this struggle for free speech and against police control of the press. So if you have any thoughts about any of this, please comment here or feel free to contact me directly at rall.com/contact. Thank you for your support!
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.”)
Yesterday my attorneys filed, and California’s Court of Appeals accepted, our Appellate Brief in my defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times et al.
I sued in 2015. The Times filed three anti-SLAPP motions against me, halting the case because they’re scared of facing a jury and want to intimidate me. In 2017 a lower-court judge ruled for the Times, ordering me to pay them $350,000 in the Times’ attorneys fees. This document is our appeal of the 2017 decision.
If successful, the $350,000 judgement will be vacated and I can build my case to take to a jury.
If not, the $350,000 stands, plus more fees for the Times defense of this appeal. And my case dies. And Californians who work for media companies will have no recourse in the courts if their employer discriminates against them, even if they do so for racist or sexist or homophobic reasons.
Please read our brief below; it’s an interesting read. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions. Thank you for your incredible support!
“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Donald Trump said recently. “And if somebody says something that’s totally false and knowingly false, that the person that has been abused, defamed, libeled, will have meaningful recourse.”
Yes, Trump is a jerk.
True, he himself is the Slanderer-in-Chief.
Granted, he’s a bit of a fascist.
Pertinently, libel laws are state laws. Neither the president nor Congress can change them.
But even an authoritarian hypocrite is right sometimes. And Trump is dead right that the nation’s libel laws are “a sham and a disgrace.”
My defamation lawsuit against The Los Angeles Times is a case study. (I’ve written about the merits of my case elsewhere. Here, I ask you to simply consider the process of lodging a complaint and taking it to a jury to consider. My question is this: should suing be this difficult?)
Bear in mind: the timeline in my case is typical.
The Times published an article announcing my firing in July 2015. After their excuse for my firing fell apart, they published a second piece “reaffirming” their decision in August 2015. Two and a half years later, we haven’t even begin discovery — and I’ll be lucky to get in front of a jury before 2020.
Justice delayed is justice denied. So what’s taking so long? Part of the problem is California’s understaffed, overworked court system. But mostly it’s the fact that newspapers have rigged the legal system against plaintiffs.
In California, for example, media companies lobbied the legislature to pass Civil Code 48(a). Under 48(a), you have to serve written notice to a newspaper that they’ve libeled you within 20 days of the initial publication. What if you’re off fishing for three weeks? Too bad — you can’t sue. What if you hear about the libelous article more than 20 days later? Again, you have no recourse.
What if you’ve never heard of the law? You’re like most people — and you’ve got no case, no matter what they wrote about you.
California is one of 28 states to have an “anti-SLAPP” law. According to proponents, there are wealthy individuals and companies who file nuisance lawsuits against defendants, not to win but to tie the poor defendants up in court and force them to hire expensive lawyers to defend themselves.
Assuming abusive lawsuits are actually a problem (there’s no evidence of this), the “solution” created by anti-SLAPP laws is ridiculous on its face. A defendant files an anti-SLAPP motion that, if successful, gets said frivolous lawsuit thrown out of court and forces the rich abusive plaintiff to pay the poor defendant’s legal fees. But…the operative word here is “rich.” If you’re rich and out to screw over a poor defendant, why would the risk of incurring some extra fees deter you?
Here’s where things get really crazy. I consulted with numerous attorneys who told me I’d probably beat the Times if I ever got in front of a jury. Getting past anti-SLAPP, they said, would be the tough hurdle. But the anti-SLAPP law is only supposed to kill frivolous lawsuits. Then how can it be that, in the opinion of numerous experienced lawyers, my case — which they think would probably win — could be defeated by an anti-SLAPP motion? Because anti-SLAPP law is so complicated that many judges don’t understand it and rule in favor of anti-SLAPP motions when they ought to reject them.
Lawyers I talked to in L.A. liked my case but were so cowed by anti-SLAPP that it took me months to find one willing to represent me. Finally, I filed suit in March 2016.
As predicted, the Times filed a set of anti-SLAPP motions against me. Then they invoked an obviously unconstitutional section of the California Code, 1030(a), that is so obscure that few attorneys or bond companies had heard of it, one that required me to post a cash (i.e., 100% of value) bond just to continue my case. The reason? I reside outside of California. The Times demanded $300,000. The judge knocked it down to $75,000. Thanks to appalled readers, I raised the money via crowdfunding. What would someone without a media mouthpiece do if they had to come up with 75 grand just to stay in court? They’d probably have to drop their case.
Hearings on the anti-SLAPPs took place in July 2017. It had been two years since the Times published their lies about me: two years without discovery, two years during which key witnesses might die or move away, two years during which the Times could destroy evidence.
Even though lower-court judge agreed that “the enhanced tape establishes his [Rall’s] recounting of the incident was accurate” — i.e., I told the truth, the Times lied when they said I didn’t, thus the Times defamed me — he ruled against me, awarding the Times about $350,000 in legal fees at my expense.
Anti-SLAPP is automatically appealable, so the next step is the Court of Appeals. We submit our appeal brief. The Times replies. We reply to their reply. The court sets a hearing date. If all goes well, that’ll happen some time this year. If the appellate judges rule in my favor, we finally begin discovery — in 2019-ish.
Four years after the crime. Four years for the trail to go from cold to stone-cold.
If and when I get to my actual trial, then — just maybe — print-media journalists will break their Grey Wall of Silence and report on my case. If and when that happens, though, I’m sure they’ll manage to characterize me as an abusive plaintiff trying to curtail the First Amendment rights of the pure-as-virgin-snow Los Angeles Times.
Trump can’t and won’t do anything to address our ridiculous libel laws. Which is really really #sad.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is co-author, with Harmon Leon, of “Meet the Deplorables: Infiltrating Trump America,” an inside look at the American far right, out now. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)