Romney Campaign's Finance Co-Chair Accused Of Being SLAPP-Happy

from the time-for-a-federal-anti-slapp-law dept

We’ve covered, repeatedly, the problems of people using SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — lawsuits against people trying to speak their opinion. While some states have anti-SLAPP laws (with the quality of those laws being quite mixed), we still believe that we really need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law. If you’re not familiar with SLAPP lawsuits, they are lawsuits with little basis that are filed with the sole purpose of silencing someone who is speaking out in some manner.

Last week, Glenn Greenwald, over at Salon, went into tremendous detail in accusing Mitt Romney’s billionaire national finance co-chair, Frank VanderSloot (oddly, links to this page don’t seem to work, but if you go to Greenwald’s blog you can still get to it — at the same URL), of regularly using SLAPP-like suits or threats of SLAPP-like suits to silence critics. He lays out a number of examples, involving publications both big (Mother Jones, Forbes) and small (various small time bloggers). Unfortunately, it appears that many of those publications simply backed down, often removing the material entirely. You would think that publications like Forbes and Mother Jones would stand up to such actions, but they both took down the articles critical of VanderSloot, though Mother Jones eventually (a week or so later) posted a new version that was apparently edited to address the complaints.

VanderSloot is CEO of Melaleuca, which has been described as a multilevel marketing company. In that Forbes article, Melaleuca is described as a “a pyramid selling organization.” Elsewhere, in complaints to the government, it has been described as a “pyramid scheme.” VanderSloot and Melaleuca have argued, however, that it is not a “pyramid scheme.” He’s also been very politically active, not just in the Romney campaign, but various other political campaigns — including paying for billboards to speak out against the local PBS station showing a particular documentary about gay issues. Forbes recently used this story to suggest that VanderSloot was “a large contributor to a number of anti-homosexual causes.” That article has since been removed but copies can be found online. Greenwald also details a blog post by James Tidmarsh on the site IdahoAgenda, which claimed that VanderSloot “has a pretty solid anti-gay history in Idaho.” VanderSloot and his lawyers appear to take exception to such claims, and the Tidmarsh blog post has since been removed after he apparently received multiple communications pressuring him to take the post down or face consequences.

As we’ve seen in SLAPP cases we’ve looked at in the past, at times he uses copyright to try to threaten legal action — including in one case where his lawyers registered the copyright on a takedown letter they sent a blog, which they then used to claim infringement against the person who posted the letter on the site (to explain why the original blog post was removed). In that case, since it involved anonymous bloggers, VanderSloot’s company, Melaleuca also tried to issue subpoenas to identify the bloggers. Similarly, they apparently claimed copyright infringement in a letter to a blogger who made use of a VanderSloot corporate headshot — a common practice, and one for which there is at least some legal precedence for fair use (and that threatening over such uses can be seen as a SLAPP attempt).

We’ve seen many similar cases, but Greenwald lays out so many similar stories involving VanderSloot and Melaleuca (many with detailed citations), that I’m kind of surprised that we hadn’t come across these before. Either way, you can tell that Greenwald (who is a lawyer) was quite careful in drafting his writeup, most likely expecting at least some pushback. He also highlights the cause of one blogger, Jody May-Chang, who does not seem to want to back down against VanderSloot, after having received a letter (pdf) recently about an old blog post (for which it’s likely any defamation claim is long past the statute of limitations).

Once again, stories like these really highlight the need for a strong and clear federal anti-SLAPP law. It would certainly be interesting for someone in the political press to ask Mitt Romney for his position on a federal anti-SLAPP law, given his relationship with VanderSloot. Either way, I feel it’s a shame that we don’t have such a strong federal anti-SLAPP law in place already. Such a law would go a long way towards protecting basic First Amendment principles. I’m always most amazed at the rich and powerful using these types of tactics (see: Snyder, Dan) not just because such people are public figures (where the bar for any defamation claim is significantly higher), but because you would think that, having gotten to such a level, they’d be secure enough in their arguments that having random publications snipe at them should be of little concern.

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Comments on “Romney Campaign's Finance Co-Chair Accused Of Being SLAPP-Happy”

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Sneeje (profile) says:

What I think is a shame

is that major media and so-called journalists don’t call anyone out on these kinds of things any more. Or force them to provide justifications for assertions made in large, public forums. Or research citations and statistics.

But, there you have it, expecting journalism to be a check and balance to hold our leaders and politicians accountable to the people and fundamental rights is pretty much dead.

Anonymous Coward says:

@Difster: What constitutional authority is there for stuff like paper money (the constitution says “COIN” not “PRINT”, and our founders fought over that very issue 200 years ago) or the department of education (schools, etc, are supposed to be run & regulated by the states).

The fact is the constitution is an evolving document. Given precedent congress certainly has the power to enact such an anti-SLAPP law.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

No way!

The First Amendment should be enough justification in itself for federal anti-SLAPP laws.

A law against false claim of copyright or trademark could also include anti-SLAPP provisions. Many SLAPP examples use copyright in order to take advantage of DCMA takedowns. There could be treble damages if the false claim of copyright is results in stifling criticism or competition. In order to be effective, the law making false claim an offense would need to state failure to take fair use into account would constitute a false claim. This would be important because there is often some type of quotation or “head shot” issue that is the basis of the copyright claim being used for SLAPP.

Stuart says:


Hasn’t evolved very well.
Department of Education: Education has gotten worse since its creation.
Department of Energy: Created to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Ha!
Paper money: The US has used it to be able to silently tax you all they want. They print and you are taxed for every dollar you hold.

The fact is we would be better off had the document not “Evolved”.

Anonymous Coward says:

SLAPP does NOT cover libelous claims. If MotherJones chose to edit their post it indicates their admission that unsubstantiated claims were made in the original article. You have the right to voice your opinion if you make clear that it is your opinion and you are not stating something as fact when in reality it is a biased attack against someone. Freedom of speach does NOT include the ability to slander and defame people.

dwg says:


You’re missing the point: SLAPPs are very often couched in libel or slander claims. For example, a business claims that another business has committed trade libel by demeaning the first business’s products. Or, far worse, a business brings a defamation claim against boycotters or whistleblowers for voicing their negative opinion of that business. So, yes: SLAPP does cover defamation, insofar as it is available to those who are hauled into court for exercising their first amendment rights to free speech. You’re right, in that anti-SLAPP laws do not PROTECT defamation–but where the statement is not defamatory in the first instance (i.e., was true) as this post seems to suggest many of the statements made were, then that’s the domain of anti-SLAPP legislation.

BlueDaug says:

Just the truth please

It seems what is lost in all of this is the fact Mr. VanderSloot is only asking for any reporting or story be done accurately, both about him personally and about his company. If you don’t want Mr. VanderSloot calling you on the carpet then don’t print and post things that aren’t true. If you do, then be prepared to hear from him. He is not, as it is repeated in this article, a billionaire, and Melaleuca is not a “pryamid scheme” as it is inaccurately described. How do I know this? Because I have been associated with both the man and the company for almost 10 years. The only thing that Mr. VanderSloot is opposed to is lazy journalism. Because that is one thing Frank is not. Lazy.

onemorevoice (profile) says:

It's not SLAPP Happy to defend yourself from lies

What happens when lies are truths are twisted by bloggers or media outlets who clearly have a different political agenda than you? If you don’t do something, the next article then reads something like Melaleuca’s critics say…Several recent stories about the company are filled with what the previous critic said, repeating false info and making no attempt at balancing the story. It’s irresponsible and malicious journalism. Obviously, the media can say what they want, but people like Vandersloot and everybody else needs to be able to correct inacurracies without the threat of being further attacked. If lies were being spread about you, would you just sit around and let them go unanswered?

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