Taylor Swift's Legal Rep Tries To Kill Critical Blog Post With Bogus Defamation, Copyright Claims

from the flailing-badly dept

Taylor Swift’s legal representation is busy again. Really, her reps are never not busy, thanks to her desire to capture the entirety of the Taylor Swift market, but this particular legal threat — aimed at a blogger — oversteps its bounds egregiously.

PopFront editor Meghan Herning wrote a post detailing Swift’s unofficial position as a white supremacist hero. While there’s nothing in the post claiming Swift has directly encouraged this subset of her following, it did point out that she’s remained curiously silent on race issues, as well as made use of Nazi-esque imagery in her videos.

Swift is not amused, apparently. William Briggs of Venable LLP sent threatening letter [PF] demanding the removal of the PopFront post. The letter claims the post is defamatory and filled with “malicious lies.” More specifically, Swift apparently doesn’t care for the following post content:

The story knowingly regurgitates, repeats, and attempts to expand on a malicious lie. Among other things, the story propagates such hideous falsehoods as: 1) “Taylor’s lyrics play to [a] subtle, quiet white support of a racial hierarchy;” 2) that there are similarities between Ms. Swift and Adolf Hitler; 3) that the “lyrics [of “Look What You Made Me Do”] are the most explicit in speaking to white anger and affirming white supremacy;” and 4) that Ms. Swift’s purported silence regarding white supremacy means she supports Donald Trump and identifies with the white supremacist/al-right movement.

The rest of the cease-and-desist is more of an angry letter to the editor. The legal firmness of Venable LLP’s stance takes a backseat to general, non-litigious complaints about the post’s assertions. Swift’s attorney says his client has done plenty to combat racial inadequacy and is under no obligation to campaign for the Hillary Clintons of the world. Fair enough, but really not the sort of thing actionable legal claims can be built on.

Unfortunately for Swift and Venable LLP, the ACLU has stepped in to represent PopFront and Meghan Herning. It has answered with a letter [PDF] of its own that completely disassembles the stupid, sometimes disingenuous statements made by Swift’s legal rep.

First, the blog’s statement that “Taylor’s lyrics seem to play to the same subtle, quiet white support of a racial hierarchy that benefits them,” is protected opinion. As an initial matter, your letter misquotes the blog post by omitting the word “seem,” a term signaling that what follows is an opinion. This omission suggests that you well understand that the actual post is stating an opinion, protected by the Constitution. If you are going to write a letter accusing a person of misrepresentation, you should avoid misrepresenting what she wrote.

The ACLU’s letter points out Taylor Swift is a celebrity. The defamation bar is much higher for public figures, especially since the same fame that grants them money, power, and all the other nice things in life also makes them targets for criticism. Criticism isn’t immediately synonymous with defamation, no matter how much Swift’s lawyer would like it to be. And, again, the ACLU’s letter makes this point while knocking the C&D for its attempt to put words into the blog post’s author’s mouth.

[Y]our letter asserts what the blog does not, “that Ms. Swift’s purported silence regarding white supremacy means she supports Donald Trump and identifies with the white supremacist/al-right [sic] movement.” It is not clear what your statement refers to, because there is nothing in the post that says this. The post does state that “there is no way to know for sure if Taylor is a Trump supporter or identifies with the white nationalist message, but her silence has not gone unnoticed.” But this is a far cry from stating that she supports Trump or identifies with the alt-right. You are of course absolutely right that “Ms. Swift has no obligation to campaign for any particular candidate or broadcast her political views.” But nor does she (or, probably more to the point, her lawyers) have the authority to tell other people the conclusions they can draw from her decision to keep silent.

Thus, however, “hideous” you consider these statements to be, none of them are actionable.

To top it all off, the legal threat came with a paragraph claiming the letter was protected IP and could not be reproduced or published without permission. This is not just rank bullshit but it’s also incredibly stupid. There’s almost no phrase more guaranteed to result in permissionless publication than this one:

This is a confidential legal notice and is not for publication. Any publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of this letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of Copyright Act. You are not authorized to publish this letter in whole or in part absent our express written authorization.

The ACLU makes this point by publishing Venable LLP’s letter along with the following paragraphs in its response:

First, the claim of confidentiality can only be described as odd, particularly coming from a lawyer; you cannot really expect that a person who receives a letter like this will feel any duty to keep this matter a little secret between the two of you. And it is not without irony that at one point you ask that your “letter stand as yet another unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the altright,” but then purport to forbid anybody from making the letter public.

Second, you cannot use copyright law as a weapon to suppress your letter, because reproduction of it here is fair use under 17 U.S.C. § 107. Attaching the letter to this one transforms it from a clumsy legal threat to suppress constitutionally protected speech into an exposé of that attempt in order to educate others who might receive these types of letters that they need not be intimidated.

PopFront and the ACLU will not be caving in to Swift’s bogus legal threats. Nor will they be building a time machine to comply with the demands for a retraction “no later than” one day before the legal threat was actually sent.

And later in the letter:

Stupid defamation claims and bogus copyright language are Streisand-bait. Someone working for a top-tier law firm and representing a top-tier artist should know better. And perhaps attorney William Briggs does know better, but has chosen to serve his client as well as possible given the circumstances. But providing top tier service doesn’t necessarily mean acquiescing to every client demand. Briggs and Venable should have taken a pass on this one. Instead, they’re going to be the recipient of the sort of criticism they attempted to quell with this misguided demand letter.

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Companies: aclu, popfront, venable llp

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Comments on “Taylor Swift's Legal Rep Tries To Kill Critical Blog Post With Bogus Defamation, Copyright Claims”

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59 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Oh, the ACLU is always against least hint of pro-American.

A complaint letter can be safely ignored and carries no legal weight.

Considering that instead of asking for them to do something, the letter made demands with the promise of legal action, and the blog was required to respond shows it’s quite obvious this is NOT just “a complaint letter”.

Get your head out of the sand and educate yourself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lawyers

(Some) Lawyers and cops and politicians seem to tell blatant lies because they assume that others won’t know the truth or be able to find it out and it probably works a lot of the time, so they keep doing it. They know what they’re likely to get away with. Unfortunately for them, there are other lawyers to call them out for their bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lawyers

The law is open for interpretation. It is not the lawyers job to judge on a case but to do the best for their client within the legal framework. If you don’t do everything you can then why should anyone hire you?

As for morals or ethics: Laws represent the moral or ethics of a society. i.e. gay marriage wasn’t allowed, now it is. Change of moral,ethics turned law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Lawyers

Generally speaking, no the law is not open to interpretation. It is illegal to commit murder, I don’t see how that is open to interpretation.

It is not the lawyers job to judge on a case, but that only applies when the outcome is in question. It is lawyers’ job to explain to their clients what the law is/says and advise them whether bringing legal action would be worthwhile or not. In this case the lawyers have either clearly failed at that job or were told to do it anyway regardless.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Lawyers

Generally speaking, no the law is not open to interpretation. It is illegal to commit murder, I don’t see how that is open to interpretation.

Two words for you: justifiable homicide.

The reason we have judges in the first place is because the law is open to interpretation. Judges are the people we have empowered to do that interpretation.

That said, a major part of any lawyer’s job is understanding case law, that murky quagmire of standing interpretations and precedents. Any lawyer worth their salt should have known exactly how this would’ve turned out.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Lawyers

Any lawyer worth their salt should have known exactly how this would’ve turned out.

That’s the problem, they almost certainly did know how it would turn out, which is why they felt safe sending the letter.

Had the ACLU not stepped in to offer assistance then the blogger likely would have folded and agreed to the demands, not because they were wrong, but simply because Swift can afford to burn more cash in legal fees. Being on the right side of the law only gets you so far when the opposition can simply outspend you and drive you under that way, something I imagine just about any lawyer, and certainly a firm knows full well.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Lawyers

In isolation, sure, but this sort of thing indicates a pattern. Do this enough times and it’s inevitable that someone ends up making a stand, and your attempt to silence criticism ends up doing more harm than the person you were trying to silence. Of course, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law, so fewer people are intimidated into folding quietly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Lawyers

“If you don’t do everything you can then why should anyone hire you?”

Because some people value ethics and morality over greed and abuse of power.

“Laws represent the moral or ethics of a society”

Oh holy shit no! Law is very much separated from morality and ethics. Not all laws are moral and not all morality is legal and vice versa. It’s immoral to let people starve, but in some places it’s against the law to feed the homeless. It was legal to own slaves prior to the Civil War but it was never moral to do so. It’s legal to bribe politicians as long as you call it “campaign donations” or “lobbying” but it’s unethical to do so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Lawyers

“Because some people value ethics and morality over greed and abuse of power.”

True but if you hire a lawyer and s/he says “I’m not going to do the best I can to get you out, we both know you are guilty” then would you hire them? Unless you like prison I guess that is a no.

“It’s immoral to let people starve, but in some places it’s against the law to feed the homeless.”
Then advocate to change the law. Write/speak to people in charge. I’m not saying the law is perfect but in general it changes over time to represent the society. And if feeding the homeless is against the law that probably says more about the society than the law imho.

“It was legal to own slaves prior to the Civil War but it was never moral to do so.”

At the time, sure it was. At least for some people. Don’t look at it from our point of view when it is obvious that slavery is a bad thing but put yourself in that time. 100 years from now maybe people think eating animals is cruel.
As in “It was never moral to do so”. Yet I do enjoy a good steak and think it’s tasty and ok to eat it.

Mark D. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Lawyers

“True but if you hire a lawyer and s/he says “I’m not going to do the best I can to get you out, we both know you are guilty” then would you hire them? Unless you like prison I guess that is a no.”

The actions a lawyer can take are, in theory, constrained by law and professional rules of conduct that must be adhered to. A lawyer is not supposed to be just a hired goon, but someone that gives professional advice. “The best that they can do” is not the same as “anything the client wants”.

In the case of criminal defense, the lawyer is not allowed to advise the client to lie to try and get aquitted. What they can do is pound on the admissibility of evidence, cross-examine witnesses, or try to get a plea bargain to reduce the client’s sentence.

In the case of speech disputes like the one here, Swift’s lawyers are blowing smoke. They have no case, and if they have any degree of competence they know that the letter’s a bunch of bull shit. In a just world this would be a sanctionable offense either as malfeasance or incompetence.

Rekrul says:

I know it’s not the point of the article, but I wanted to comment that I think the people claiming Taylor Swift is a white supremacist are nutjobs. I watched the video in question and it just looked like a weird, kinky video to me. If I’d never heard anything about it or her, I wouldn’t find it racist.

With enough effort, you could probably make a case for why Mr. Rogers was secretly a racist.

That said, I’ve never really been a fan of Taylor Swift. I’m kind of unnerved by the way she literally looks like plastic in virtually every photo and video. Often you seem promotional photos where too much airbrushing has made the model look like a mannequin, but for some reason, Taylor Swift seems to look like that in real life. Either she uses way too much makeup, or she’s the first person in history born without pores.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Because people with horrible values to my own should have no right to enjoy my product in a capitalist society.

Criminals also listen to music, should I disavow every single one of them or risk having my music be unworthy of listening to by everyone else?

What person really has control over their fans? Are they obligated to have this impossible control? Look at Eminem and Dixie Chicks. Both of them lost fans and money over their political stances.

Therefore, the most financially wise thing to do as a celebrity is to (publicly) claim no political stance at all.

Swift’s lawyers being censorious just turned that blog post (more?) viral. Regardless of the truth of the blog posts’ statements, the lawyers’ involvement has already turned the public against them.

Anonymous Coward says:

If she is going to be intentionally damaged by someone trying to associate her with white supremacy, then she is well within her right to go after them and the ACLU is wrong. In todays climate, your life can be damaged by some fool claiming you associate with particular groups.

Nobody has done more damage to peoples perception of civil rights in the last 20 years than the ACLU.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If someone is intentionally making false statements that they claim are true about someone, then yes, in certain circumstances you can take viable legal action against them.

What you can’t do is take anybody and everybody to court who happens to have an opinion about you. Which is exactly what this is.

The blog is not making false accusations, they are stating observable facts and drawing conclusions and making opinions based on those observable facts. There is nothing legally actionable about any of this, nor is there intent to damage her reputation. It’s all just opinion and speculation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“If she is going to be intentionally damaged by someone trying to associate her with white supremacy, then she is well within her right to go after them”

Why has she not done this?

” your life can be damaged by some fool claiming you associate with particular groups. “

Papa John’s trying to save their ass – lol

“Nobody has done more damage to peoples perception of civil rights in the last 20 years than the ACLU.”

Please explain this as I have not been privy to the details

Mark D. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Nobody has done more damage to peoples perception of civil rights in the last 20 years than the ACLU."

That is because the ACLU actually cares about principles, and not stupid tribalist loyalty. They protect the rights of everyone that they can.

Maybe the blog poster is a nut job, but saying "I think Swift is racist because of X, Y, and Z" is not legally actionable, and Swift has many methods to rebut that conclusion if it’s so bothersome to her.

Anonymous Coward says:

Consider the environment today. Consider what is happening with boycotts, bans, people losing their job.

Writing someone is a Nazi or a White Supremacist could very well be libel. “Ms. Swift’s purported silence regarding white supremacy means she supports Donald Trump and identifies with the white supremacist/al-right movement.”

The writer is accusing Taylor Swift of identifying (or being) a white supremacist.) Can the writer prove that Swift is a white supremacist? If not true, how is this not libel?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“So there were no Nazi’s in Charlotte?”

What happened in Charlotte?

Perhaps you were talking bout the events in Charlottesville, where Nazis gathered and one decided to kill counter-protesters, but you’re the first one to mention that. Weird.

“So people were not fired for being identified as being Nazi’s recently?”

For being Nazis, sure. Is there a problem with that, or are you just too dense to understand the difference between silly gossip and speculation, and verifiable evidence of some assholes proudly marching in a Nazi rally?

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