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.