Coal Boss Files Total SLAPP Suit Against John Oliver & HBO

from the let's-talk-anti-slapp,-john dept

This one is clearly no surprise at all, given that — as we wrote about just a couple days ago — Bob Murray and his company Murray Energy were threatening John Oliver with a SLAPP suit if Oliver’s satirical report about the coal industry was used to “defame, harass, or otherwise injure Mr. Murray or Murray Energy.” Of course, Oliver’s report did no such thing… but, alas, Murray has now sued Oliver, HBO, Time Warner… and the writers of the story. The lawsuit was filed in West Virginia state court. In my original post, I suggested it might be filed in Ohio, where Murray Energy is headquartered, but it does also have operations in West Virginia as well. Either way, as with Ohio, West Virginia is a state with no anti-SLAPP law.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the full lawsuit. The Daily Beast, which first wrote about the case has chosen — for whatever reason — not to post the document, which is pretty lame. However, having watched the John Oliver piece multiple times, I can’t see how any of it comes anywhere even remotely near defamatory. It falls into a variety of clearly protected categories, including opinion, satire and rhetorical hyperbole. The idea that there were materially false and defamatory statements that were put forth knowing they were false (or with reckless disregard for the truth) is laughable. There is no way that this lawsuit succeeds — but, as we’ve been pointing out — that’s not really the point of most of these kinds of lawsuits. SLAPP lawsuits are designed to create a chill on free speech, by making that speech costly. Obviously, HBO/Time Warner can afford this, and have access to great lawyers, so there’s almost no chance that Murray wins the lawsuit, but that’s not the point. It will still cost money and lots of time to deal with the lawsuit and that’s a hassle.

Murray Energy put out a bizarre statement that does little to support the idea that Murray has an actual case here:

The false and defamatory statements in this broadcast severely and destructively impact Mr. Murray, and all of Murray Energy, particularly our Mines in the State of West Virginia, where we are the largest coal mining employer in the State, as well as coal mining itself, one of the primary foundations of that State’s economy.

Murray Energy filed this lawsuit, in part, in order to protect these lives and family livelihoods from the further damage by people who do not want to see coal mined, and want all of those lives destroyed, and will stop at nothing, including lying and fabrications, to accomplish their goal.

This is… laughable if you actually watched the Oliver segment, which is clearly standing up for the workers in these mines, but pointing out how the interests of the bosses — such as Bob Murray — are often different than the workers, and highlights a few examples of employees of Murray Energy not appreciating the way Bob Murray ran the company and treated the employees. Similarly, disparaging coal mining itself (which the Oliver report really doesn’t even do) is not, in any way, defamatory.

The Daily Beast — while not posting the complaint — did get Ken “Popehat” White’s opinion on it:

?Overall I?d say it appears frivolous and vexatious,? he said. ?Any core of merit is buried in nonsense.?

?It does arguably cite one or two statements (like the bit about earthquakes) that could possibly be defamatory, since they involve fact,? he said. ?But for the most part the section describing the purportedly false statements is rambling and semi-coherent, mixing fact with opinion and insult.?

As White notes, the defendants will likely get the case removed to federal court, which should be fairly easy, as there’s diversity with most or all of the defendants being in New York, not West Virginia. Of course, it also depends which federal court they remove the case to — but in some sense, it won’t matter at all for anti-SLAPP purposes, since New York (the most likely other destination) has a very weak anti-SLAPP law and it would be tough to apply it here.

So, once again, we can only hope that out of this stupid situation, John Oliver will now become a proponent of much stronger anti-SLAPP laws. If his staff is looking into that issue, I’d be happy to point them to lots and lots of useful experts and resources on anti-SLAPP laws. It’s a big issue (that we’re living through ourselves) that needs more attention — the kind of attention that John Oliver is now uniquely positioned to help bring to it.

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Companies: hbo, murray energy, time warner

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Comments on “Coal Boss Files Total SLAPP Suit Against John Oliver & HBO”

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60 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Well nuts to that

Yeah, Murray and his team really did not think this one through. It could have been over with, brought up in a single episode and then left behind as the show covered other topics, but by going legal they’ve ensured that it will be covered again, drawing even more attention both to the original episode and it’s contents and now the fact that he’s suing over it.

So congrats Murray and company, you just Streisand’d yourself quite nicely, and if you think you had it bad from the previous episode covering you, just wait until the next one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: When will they learn?

You overlook the fact journalist in the future will be intimidated by these past lawsuits and think twice before writing about Bob and company. It might draw attention now but is quite likely to draw less attention in the long run.

Also, its often cheaper to settle out of court and these ego busted companies can spin that to their advantage. That is whats likely to happen here.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: When will they learn?

I doubt HBO would settle, since their legal department apparently went over the episode closely before it aired and was expecting this: HBO keeps Oliver & his writers happy, the show gets to chase another dingo, and more people are made aware of SLAPP suits. Murray really should have read up on Oliver’s effect on the Net Neutrality fight.

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: Re: When will they learn?

That’s my take on this as well; Oliver & his writers keep HBO happy. It’s a popular show. HBO would be crazy to fold if for no other reason than how John Oliver might react. Not that he’s a loose cannon, but I can’t see him agreeing to a gag order nor staying silent.

HBO fighting this would make them the good guys (like NewEgg in the patent arena) Murray on the other hand already looks like a humourless clown. Google Murray Coal, and the top stories are a confident looking Oliver with a beaming smile, and mining disasters. Murray knows nothing about social media, Streisand, and let’s face it, the 21st and 20th centuries…

Anonymous Coward says:

Oliver is not Average Joe telling Truth To Power, he’s attack-dog front for vast globalist organization that passes itself off as “news”.

Plaintiff should highlight that and these facts:

1) Expand on slippery but key point: this attack doesn’t follow from recent events, but is contrived political move to destroy a foe. NBC is simply a loaded gun looking for target, and this time picked Murray.

2) That purpose is thinly concealed with “humor”, not any serious effort to put out news or bring about change, just “humor” for the delight of idiots. Insulting is easy, while running coal mines at even high level is useful WORK.

3) Oliver is PAID to make this attack, by

4) NBC which has vast voice, immense resources, and lawyers, beyond what even Murray has, so the relation of power premised for SLAPP protections is actually reversed.

5) Oliver probably not a US citizen but British serf; isn’t his fight, just one he’s been ordered to make. — Bet you won’t find Oliver criticizing the British “Royals”, he’s a LOYAL serf.

So I bet that IF this can be gotten to a jury, Oliver won’t win.

Common law sets a limit to “free speech”, has to be for GOOD purpose, not just because can get away with an attack.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sixth time a charm. Perhaps not using subject line helps to get comment in.

You bring up a whole lot of points that are irrelevant to any defamation lawsuit, and expect to be respected for your rhetorial prowess? Naw, gotta class you as a troll. Thanks for playing, though. Lots of folks here love red herring sandwiches.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Ahahahaha… oh wait you’re serious. Let me laugh harder! If you really think the court will pay the slightest attention to your “facts” you need to take a remedial grade school civics class. Or start a gofundme. Because I’m 100% sure you could write off any money received as charity for the mentally disabled.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Ahahahaha… oh wait you’re serious. Let me laugh harder! If you really think the court will pay the slightest attention to your “facts” you need to take a remedial grade school civics class.”

Slow up there… don’t be dumb. NEVER underestimate how stupid a court can be. You are entering the “Oliver begs Trump to run for president because that joke could never happen” territory here. Cut that shit out!

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re:

1) It does follow Trumps recent actions regarding coal. Even if it didn’t, so what? That doesn’t really matter.

2) “humor” is protected speech even if it is “for the delight of idiots”. Free speech also doesn’t have to have any “serious effort to put out news or bring about change” To be protected.

3) I’m not paid for this comment. Doesn’t really matter. Free speech is free speech. Paid or not doesn’t have anything to do with it.

4) NBC is the one being sued not Murray. SLAPP protection is about protecting from lawsuits meant to make you shut up. How much money you have doesn’t really matter. Just because they have a lot of money doesn’t mean they should be forced to waste it defending themselves from a merit less lawsuit.

5) Again, why do you think this matters? Also, how is this not his fight? If your locked in a house with a bunch of people and some of them are trying to light the house on fire then it is kind of everyone’s fight isn’t it? Or you just going to sit in the corner saying “Well it is none of my business what they are doing over there”

I guess really to sum it all up. You don’t seem to understand freedom of speech and what it is for. There would certainly be a LOT less speech if as you say it “has to be for GOOD purpose”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What does NBC have to do with anything?

Last Week Tonight is on HBO (owned by Time Warner), not NBC (owned by Comcast).

At first, I thought you might be confusing it with Comedy Central (where the Daily Show, Oliver’s former job) – but that’s Viacom.

And then I thought you might be confusing it with Stephen Colbert’s new job on the Late Show, but that’s CBS.

I have no idea where you’re getting NBC from.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

She has absolutely no idea what she is talking about, so that should tell you something about why NBC was even mentioned in the first place.

Also, Murray energy obviously has “vast voice, immense resources, and lawyers,” equal to what HBO has, “so the relation of power premised for SLAPP protections is actually” in parity.

FTFY. Murray Energy is the #1 coal producer in the country. I doubt they will have trouble with resouces, since they BROUGHT the fight in the fucking first place.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

I watched the video, and as always Oliver is quite funny and generally on point. There is plenty in the piece that is clearly protected speech.

I can say, however, that it does also appear to be a fairly one sided piece, and if your opinions of Murray came solely from Oliver’s mouth, then you might consider him quite the piece of sh-t.

I am not standing up for Murray in anyway here, I don’t know him from a hole in the ground. The question only is did Oliver present the truth, or did he carefully edit together a collection of statements and comments, perhaps even taken out of context, to paint a worse picture that reality? There is a point where that can be actionable if the intent was to change the meaning of statements or to present things together in a way to create meaning where none existed.

Oliver is hilarious. The squirrel bit is pretty darn funny. I hope he keeps up the good work! I also hope for his sake that everything he said is true, solid, and beyond legal reproach. Then he can also win this lawsuit and make another 20 minute bit about how much of a coal hole Murray must surely be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Look, I am anti-FCC & anti-regulation and completely understand that J.Oliver is clearly slanted left, but I appreciate this guy doing what he does. He shows up with a lot of facts and information and tells the story in a way other news organizations will not and usually in a very easy to understand way.

We need a literal “metric fuck ton” more of J.Oliver’s running around on all sides here. I like his comedic humor and the way he tells the story about subject matter. Either he has stellar writers or he is news genius. I really don’t care how he does what he does, he just needs to keep doing it!

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The question only is did Oliver present the truth, or did he carefully edit together a collection of statements and comments, perhaps even taken out of context, to paint a worse picture that reality?

If you could prove anything presented as a statement of fact as false, you would have a point. But alls I see here is “but what if?!” handwringing about whether his editorial slant goes too far to the left. Last time I checked, being biased in reporting is not a crime.

Also: Bias in journalism is inevitable. Someone must decide what to publish, what to distill out of the mass of available data, and what facts to check.

Oh, and one more thing: Oliver ran his segment by HBO’s legal team. I doubt a team of high-priced corporate lawyers would let him go on-air and say anything defamatory.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, I have found two things reported in a couple of different places. Being called “Dr Evil” which would imply he is a master criminal is one of the points. The bigger one seems to be related to the accident where Murray claims an Earthqauke had something to do with the accident. Apparently they are upset that only one side was presented and that studied and such that pointed to an Earthquake were ignored.

Laywers don’t always get it right. in fact our legal system pretty much assures that at least one lawyer loses in every case, right?

I don’t think Murray has a leg to stand on here. But there may be just enough to actually move this into court rather than just being a nastygram thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

it’s obvious why the law suit! Murray’s an asshole, guilty of the things mentioned and cant bear to have the truth let out about him and what he’s up to! like everyone else of wealth and position, he expects to be able to do/say whatever he wants, to whoever he wants, whenever he wants and monitor everyone else but cant have the same things happening to him!!

Lurker Keith says:

Everyone's favorite Copyright Attorney on YouTube has the filing

Leonard French, Actual Copyright Attorney (& “YouTube’s favorite Copyright Attorney”), has a 2 & 1/2 hour video up going over the filing almost line by line (I’m only about 50 mins. in; taking a bit of a break):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ns71Z8RoVn0

Murray ALWAYS (at least to where I’ve watched) uses equivocating language about how what caused the accident is “like an earthquake” or “would be considered an earthquake [by most people]”, never directly saying it was declared to have been caused by an actual earthquake. If he can’t say it was caused by an earthquake, how can he claim John Oliver should have?

Stephen says:

Te Lawsuit Text Is AvAilable at...

"Unfortunately, I don’t have the full lawsuit. The Daily Beast, which first wrote about the case has chosen — for whatever reason — not to post the document, which is pretty lame."

I did some ferreting around with Google and came up with this documentcloud.org address. Enjoy!

https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3872425/2017-06-21-Complaint-Time-Stamped.txt

Christopher Conrad says:

Re: Te Lawsuit Text Is AvAilable at...

Well isn’t a settlement suppose to avoid public record and the paper I mean that’s why you get one you can only know that they settled. The only physical proof is the court documents they have and you could see the initial check put into the bank. I’m sure if you asked them to go to the bank and print from that account in their name they would. I don’t see how this would make them look cool it estranged them from their dad and caused a lot of pain. I think it was ballsy to say that knowing he was probably being recorded. Someone admitting that is not right in the head. I think it’s very validating for that person that it sounds so far fetch. Like knowing it is their daily life and people saying it’s not really would make them feel so good knowing for them it cost a lot. The timelines and amounts are definitely screwed but overall it is true and their are receipts unfortunately. Doctors records courts records and child evaluation records. It’s so good that people can treat you like you are just full of yourself and not a victim in fact make fun of you for it. I mean I knew I couldn’t say people were out to get me because it was apart of the game which got kinda fun. I just wanna say if you want the receipts on 3/4 of my shitty life I have a 1/4 on my neck. It’s so refreshing tbh I liked it but who in the hell would wanna play the one down game. There are things I haven’t went through and people I’ve been around who have been through ten times worse. That’s comforting knowing you aren’t the only one with their struggles. I am blessed for the things I have I know that now. So listen you could completely gut me inside out but I’m not gonna react. I’m so desensitized at this point I lied because I could not tell the truth to these people with obvious intentions I get that you needed a laugh. I knew that the people I were around were not on my side but telling them the truth either made them angry because they didn’t believe it or they parented to care. I’m not gonna do some Lana lyrics of weird existential meaning of why people hurt other people because it’s simple it’s pleasurable I can see why. It’s a super easy target and easy to manipulate to situations with the way they act. I know I was not a nice person half of it from me reacting to my own stuff and yours it wasn’t right. I’m sorry I was oblivious and I was arrogant. I’ve said that you can res listen re watch the reasons I’m a terrible human being. I felt bad I treated people this way and was unaware of too aware and that was annoying. All I can do is say I’m sorry for my end good luck I put myself into these situations time and again and I have peace with that.

Christopher Conrad says:

Re: Te Lawsuit Text Is AvAilable at...

Well isn’t a settlement suppose to avoid public record and the paper I mean that’s why you get one you can only know that they settled. The only physical proof is the court documents they have and you could see the initial check put into the bank. I’m sure if you asked them to go to the bank and print from that account in their name they would. I don’t see how this would make them look cool it estranged them from their dad and caused a lot of pain. I think it was ballsy to say that knowing he was probably being recorded. Someone admitting that is not right in the head. I think it’s very validating for that person that it sounds so far fetch. Like knowing it is their daily life and people saying it’s not really would make them feel so good knowing for them it cost a lot. The timelines and amounts are definitely screwed but overall it is true and their are receipts unfortunately. Doctors records courts records and child evaluation records. It’s so good that people can treat you like you are just full of yourself and not a victim in fact make fun of you for it. I mean I knew I couldn’t say people were out to get me because it was apart of the game which got kinda fun. I just wanna say if you want the receipts on 3/4 of my shitty life I have a 1/4 on my neck. It’s so refreshing tbh I liked it but who in the hell would wanna play the one down game. There are things I haven’t went through and people I’ve been around who have been through ten times worse. That’s comforting knowing you aren’t the only one with their struggles. I am blessed for the things I have I know that now. So listen you could completely gut me inside out but I’m not gonna react. I’m so desensitized at this point I lied because I could not tell the truth to these people with obvious intentions I get that you needed a laugh. I knew that the people I were around were not on my side but telling them the truth either made them angry because they didn’t believe it or they parented to care. I’m not gonna do some Lana lyrics of weird existential meaning of why people hurt other people because it’s simple it’s pleasurable I can see why. It’s a super easy target and easy to manipulate to situations with the way they act. I know I was not a nice person half of it from me reacting to my own stuff and yours it wasn’t right. I’m sorry I was oblivious and I was arrogant. I’ve said that you can res listen re watch the reasons I’m a terrible human being. I felt bad I treated people this way and was unaware of too aware and that was annoying. All I can do is say I’m sorry for my end good luck I put myself into these situations time and again and I have peace with that.

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