John Oliver Takes On SLAPP Suits And Anti-SLAPP Laws With A Grand Musical Number
from the eat-shit-bob dept
Ever since coal boss Bob Murray threatened and then sued John Oliver and HBO over their story mocking his supposed concern for coal miners, I’ve been publicly (and possibly privately*) bugging Oliver and his team at HBO to do an episode specifically about SLAPP lawsuits and anti-SLAPP laws. And I’m happy to say that they listened! This past Sunday, Oliver’s big story was all about SLAPP suits and anti-SLAPP laws, and focused again on Bob Murray, who finally dropped his case against Oliver and HBO earlier this year. It is well worth watching all the way up until the end:
While most of the attention is obviously going to that fairly epic final musical number of insults directed at Bob Murray, I wanted to call out a few important points that were mentioned earlier in the piece that might have been passed over by some:
- Oliver highlights the real chilling effects of SLAPP suits in a variety of ways, including a newspaper that deleted all its coverage of Murray despite winning a defamation lawsuit he filed against it for covering a protest against his companies, and the fact that there are two ongoing lawsuits involving claims of harassment by Murray of employees that have received almost no news coverage at all. The point of SLAPP suits is to create a chilling effect on people talking about things. And it works unfortunately often.
- The stunning costs of these lawsuits. Oliver notes that their own lawsuit cost HBO over $200k in legal fees and resulted in a tripling of the show’s insurance premiums, despite the fact they won the case easily. I note this in particular, because I’ve heard some people argue that we don’t need anti-SLAPP laws (or, relatedly, Section 230) because “private insurance” can fix the problems by protecting companies. Except, as the Murray/Oliver case shows, that’s not at all true.
- How blatant these cases can be. Oliver mentions the fact that long after Trump sued reporter Tim O’Brien for $5 billion for reporting that Trump wasn’t actually as wealthy as he claimed to be, Trump admitted he “did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.” Oliver also has a clip of the lawyer for a waste disposal company, GreenGroup, literally laughing about suing some people for $30 million, because they raised concerns about the storage of toxic coal ash on Facebook.
Obviously, Oliver’s show is first and foremost a comedy show, though done in a way that educates people about important topics. So I can’t fault the show for not including everything that would be useful to show. However, there were a couple of points that I wish were better covered in the piece (though I recognize it’s difficult to get everything covered in the 25 minutes or so they had, and also to keep things funny). Among them:
- The wide variance in quality of anti-SLAPP laws. To simplify matters, Oliver just mentioned that they vary in quality, but focused on states with anti-SLAPP laws vs. those without them at all. But the difference in individual states matters quite a lot as we’ve discussed many times in the past. There are reasons why Devin Nunes filed multiple lawsuits in Virginia despite California almost certainly being the proper venue for his SLAPP suits.
- The importance of a federal anti-SLAPP law in addition to good state anti-SLAPP laws. Oliver briefly mentions the lack of a federal anti-SLAPP law but mostly in passing to describe why lawsuits can be filed almost anywhere (highlighting how Bob Murray sued him in West Virginia, despite Oliver being in New York and Murray being in Ohio). But a federal anti-SLAPP law also has some importance beyond jurisdiction shopping for better state laws — including that some courts (incorrectly in my opinion) argue that state ant-SLAPP laws cannot apply in federal court, even in states with anti-SLAPP laws.
- Also, that you might not always be happy with who anti-SLAPP laws protect. Indeed, while Oliver talked about President Trump wanting to open up our libel laws to file more SLAPP suits, it might have also been useful to highlight that Trump himself used Texas’ anti-SLAPP law to get the defamation lawsuit filed by Stormy Daniels tossed out.
I’ll also admit to at least a tiny bit of surprise that Rep. Devin Nunes suing a satirical cow on Twitter didn’t make the cut of cases for Oliver to mention, because it felt so deliciously perfect for Oliver to skewer.
Oh well, I guess there will always be time for Oliver to do a follow up show on SLAPP and anti-SLAPP In the future (sorry guys, not leaving you alone just yet!).
* In full disclosure, yes, I did spend a few hours across a few phone calls talking to people from Oliver’s team after they reached out to me saying (I think, jokingly) that they were sick of me constantly writing about how they should do a show about SLAPPs. I have no idea if anything I said to them was even remotely useful but am thrilled to see them cover this issue.