Mother Jones Wins Ridiculous SLAPP Suit Filed By Billionaire... Who Still Claims Victory

from the silencing-the-press dept

Mother Jones, the well-known, politically-focused publication, has prevailed in a ridiculous SLAPP suit filed by billionaire Frank VanderSloot. VanderSloot was upset about a 2012 profile that Mother Jones published about him, his multi-level marketing, dietary supplement company Melaleuca, and the millions of dollars he was donating to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. VanderSloot insisted that the article was defamatory, though you'll have to squint really hard to figure out where and how. You can read the link above, or the court's full ruling to get all of the background. In short, though, most of it came down to the question of whether or not VanderSloot engaged in "gay-bashing" in attacking a local Idaho reporter who had exposed some problematic behavior of the Boy Scouts, involving a local leader who was accused of molesting boys. The Mother Jones article used that incident as a key point in its story about VanderSloot, describing some advertisements VanderSloot had taken out, which attacked the earlier story about the Boy Scouts, as "gay bashing" because the ads focused on the fact that the reporter in those original articles, Peter Zuckerman, was gay.

The ruling even gets into a down-in-the-weeds discussion over whether or not anyone would take the term "gay bashing" to literally mean physically hitting someone, as opposed to the obviously colloquial notion of just verbally attacking someone (amusingly, the court points to at least some evidence that VanderSloot himself had referred to negative articles about himself as "Frank-bashing" suggesting that VanderSloot knows damn well what "bashing" means). Either way, it seemed pretty clear that this was a SLAPP suit -- a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It appears that billionaires have a habit of filing such things against people who say not nice things about them. There are lots of indications that this was a SLAPP suit. Tellingly, VanderSloot's lawsuit claimed $74,999 in damages. That's exactly $1 less than the $75,000 amount that would qualify the lawsuit for "diversity," meaning that Mother Jones would likely be able to remove it from a local Idaho court (where VanderSloot's company is a major advertiser and employer) to a federal court (possibly in California -- where there's a strong anti-SLAPP statute).

You might have figured this out already, but Idaho has no anti-SLAPP statute.

Mother Jones and its insurance company ended up having to spend over $2 million defending against the lawsuit, and it seems pretty clear that VanderSloot was just trying to silence (or at least punish) reporters who criticized him. Partway through the lawsuit, he apparently added Zuckerman to the lawsuit (as noted above, he had been a reporter at the Idaho Post Register, where he'd written about a Boy Scout scandal). In response to those original articles, VanderSloot's company had taken out ads about Zuckerman in the paper, mentioning his sexuality and questioning his ability to fairly cover the Boy Scout story. However, the actions, once again, showed how someone with lots of money can file these lawsuits and really mess up the lives of people they just don't like:
At one point, Zuckerman was subjected to roughly 10 hours of grilling by VanderSloot's lawyers about every detail of the controversy in Idaho Falls, including the breakup with his boyfriend of five years. (VanderSloot also threatened to sue the ex-boyfriend, backing off only after he recanted statements he'd made about the Boy Scouts episode.) As the lawyers kept probing, Zuckerman broke down and cried as he testified that the time after the ads appeared was one of the darkest periods of his life. VanderSloot, who had flown to Portland for the occasion, sternly looked on. (His lawsuit against Zuckerman is ongoing.)
And then there were things like this:
And that wasn't the end of it. VanderSloot's legal team subpoenaed the Obama campaign, which had run ads naming him as a major Republican donor. Apparently they believed we had somehow fed the campaign that information—never mind that our article, and the Federal Election Commission data that prompted it—was on the internet for anyone to read.

When officials from the Obama campaign refused to turn over their records—offering to confirm under oath that there had been no communication between them and Mother Jones—VanderSloot's lawyers dragged them into court, resulting in the spectacle of a major GOP donor seeking access to the Democratic campaign's emails. His lawyers did the same thing to a political researcher who had gathered information on VanderSloot and who also had no connection to Mother Jones.
While the case against Zuckerman is still ongoing, the court totally dismissed the case against Mother Jones (and its CEO who had put up a snarky tweet linking to the article), properly noting that none of the statements in question come close to defamation, as they're all protected opinion or hyperbole.

At the end of the lawsuit -- for no clear reason -- the judge, Darla Williamson, makes it clear that even though she's tossing the defamation claims, she really does not like Mother Jones' brand of journalism. It's not at all clear what that has to do with anything, but she notes that she finds its "reporting styles, and indeed the general trend in political journalism, troubling." Bizarrely, based on this little aside, VanderSloot himself has claimed he's pleased with the judge's ruling, despite the fact that he lost on every count. He's also announced that he's creating a $1 million fund to sue other media outlets that he determines are siding with the "liberal" agenda and attacking conservatives. In fact, he's announced that the ruling has vindicated himself. That link also ridiculously claims that he only lost on "technicalities." That's true if "technicalities" means "filing defamation claims over non-defamatory statements."
In response to the decision, VanderSloot said, “I feel absolutely vindicated. The judge gave us much more than a jury could have ever given us. This case was never about money. Our attempt was to vindicate our good name and to point out what type of sleazy journalism that Mother Jones put out to attack conservative positions. In our case we made a large donation in support of Mitt Romney and so they attacked me to punish me for the donation. The judge made it clear that is what happened here and that Mother Jones has little regard for the truth in its attempts to smear people it disagrees with. This case will not need to go to a jury. We are happy with that. A jury could not have given us a bigger win. We got more than what we hoped for from the court.”

Tom Clare, one of VanderSloot’s lawyers, stated, “This case was never about financial damages. It was about setting the record straight. We were going to ask the jury to award only $1 in damages, but the Court’s conclusions regarding Mother Jones’ ‘skewed’ and ‘biased’ reporting about Mr. VanderSloot are far better than any $1 verdict. It is great to get this result. My client has been totally vindicated.”
All this seems to confirm that this was nothing but a SLAPP suit from the beginning. Note that he doesn't care that he's lost the actual lawsuit and that his claims of defamation were shown to be flat out wrong. He's still pleased, because the judge didn't like Mother Jones' style. It's likely he's also pleased that the company had to waste time, money and resources to fight this lawsuit. And now he's establishing a fund to help do the same sort of thing to others.

Once again, it's stories like these that demonstrate why we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law as well as strong state-by-state anti-SLAPP laws that would allow those sued in these kinds of lawsuits to have them dismissed quickly, and to get back their legal fees.

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Filed Under: defamation, frank vandersloot, free speech, journalism, mitt romney, peter zuckerman, slapp suit
Companies: mother jones


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 7:46am

    'Losing' the battle, but winning the war

    All this seems to confirm that this was nothing but a SLAPP suit from the beginning. Note that he doesn't care that he's lost the actual lawsuit and that his claims of defamation were shown to be flat out wrong. He's still pleased, because the judge didn't like Mother Jones' style.

    Yes, I imagine he is pleased, but it has nothing to do with 'vindication'. The lawsuit was about sending a message of what he is willing to do to anyone he doesn't like, by making an example of someone who displeased him.

    Winning was never the goal, it was all about the message, and the $1M fund is simply his way of throwing down the gauntlet and daring any one else to say anything bad about him in the future, knowing that he is willing and able to do the same thing again, and again, and again if need be.

    Chalk this up to yet another example of why the US really needs a strong federal anti-SLAPP law on the books.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 10:52am

      Re: 'Losing' the battle, but winning the war

      Agreed. Along with such anti-slapp laws the US needs to shift the financial burden to the loser of a lawsuit. While said lawsuit is going the Government must pay for all costs and then the loser pays. This would fix the most troubling things in the justice system.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 9:52am

    Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

    Next -- closely related -- problem is lawyers. Remove monopoly from "the bar" that lets them charge $2 million when the case is this simple -- and the damages top out at $75K. Abraham Lincoln didn't have to ask permission to be a lawyer. Just demand a speedy trial by jury and present little more than Masnick has here -- adding vilify The Rich. Case could have been over within 6 months.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 10:32am

      Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

      While I agree, it is only treating the symptoms and not the underlying problem itself. I have no idea what the solution is but I think getting rid of capitalism would be a start.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Will-INI, 9 Oct 2015 @ 10:50am

        Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

        The device you typed your comment using wouldn't exist without capitalism.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Jeremy2020 (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:05am

          Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

          That's a stretch. You're saying that if Capitalism didn't exist, we'd all still be picking berries and living in caves?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Will-INI (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 12:31pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

            You just built a straw man and defeated it. Bravo. Meanwhile, type your next message out on your Soviet laptop - a typewriter facing a black & white TV.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              art guerrilla (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 3:54pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

              methinks you underestimate the synergy and evolution which make many/most inventions essentially inevitable...
              they rarely arise spontaneously out of nothing, there are a legion of others working on the same problem, some of them taking this tack, some that...
              *someone* has to be 'first to file' (both literally (as in literally) and figuratively (figuratively still means figuratively, right ?)...

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Gwiz (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:46am

        Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

        I have no idea what the solution is but I think getting rid of capitalism would be a start.


        What would you replace capitalism with? Communism? Socialism?

        Both of those systems tend to fail because of ingrained human instincts of self preservation. Capitalism uses those instincts to it's advantage.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 12 Oct 2015 @ 1:03pm

          Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

          What would you replace capitalism with? Communism? Socialism?

          Both of those systems tend to fail


          Most of Europe seems to be doing as well as anyone and they're socialist. Canada is trucking along just fine as far as I can tell and they're certainly more socialist than the US, though I don't pay a lot of attention to Canadian politics.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Gwiz (profile), 13 Oct 2015 @ 8:56am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

            Most of Europe seems to be doing as well as anyone and they're socialist. Canada is trucking along just fine as far as I can tell and they're certainly more socialist than the US...


            None of those are true socialist systems, they are capitalist systems with socialistic tendencies. You can still raise capitol, start a manufacturing business and accumulate personal wealth in those places. In a true socialist system everything is owned by everyone and profits are distributed equally. In a communistic system everything is owned by the state and living wages are (supposedly) equal.

            China has given up on their great socialistic experiment and has been slowly embracing capitalism because it gives the masses something to work towards.

            The USSR failed because the workers did as little as possible since there was no additional rewards for going the extra mile.

            PS: I am not a student of economics at all, so I could be way wrong here, but this is how I see it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 13 Oct 2015 @ 9:56am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

              In a true socialist system everything is owned by everyone and profits are distributed equally.

              If that is the definition, then there is not and has never been a socialist nation, so it's not a very useful definition. I prefer to use one that describes some actual societies.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Gwiz (profile), 13 Oct 2015 @ 10:44am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

                If that is the definition..

                I paraphrased a little, but yes, that's the definition:

                Here is Merriam-Webster's definition:
                a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies
                Communism is basically an extreme version of socialism where no property ownership exists whatsoever. Here is a good comparison:
                http://www.diffen.com/difference/Communism_vs_Socialism



                ...then there is not and has never been a socialist nation

                China certainly attempted to become a socialist society. Unfortunately, it forced them to isolate their country from the world to try to achieve it. It seems that the experiment failed seeing that they have since embraced capitalism with a fever.

                And yes, I agree that that there never has been or will ever be a truly socialistic nation. It doesn't seem to be realistic possibility to me. Humans need not only reward for hard work, but also the possibility of a better personal future.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 12 Oct 2015 @ 4:01pm

          Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

          "Capitalism uses those instincts to it's advantage."

          No it doesn't. Capitalism doesn't leverage the instinct for self-preservation at all. What capitalism leverages is the predatory nature of some human beings.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Wendy Cockcroft, 13 Oct 2015 @ 7:49am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

            Capitalism in the interests of the people (no, I'm not advocating state capitalism) would be the way forward. Tamed by regulations such as "Pay the Living Wage rate" and "Don't poison us, etc.," it would actually be beneficial.

            Mixed economies tend to do better than those skewed either towards capitalism or towards socialism. What you really want is a dual system where one feeds the other. It's why I'm keen on Middle-Out.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              John Fenderson (profile), 14 Oct 2015 @ 7:40am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.

              "Mixed economies tend to do better"

              Indeed. I can't think of any pure "-ism" that is actually a good thing (I also can't think of any pure "-ism" that has ever been successfully tried).

              The only rational way is to have a mongrel system. This is the primary strength of the way the US was set up: it was always intended to be a mongrel system that incorporates aspects of capitalism, socialism, etc...

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gwiz (profile), 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:54am

      Re:

      Vastly better way to prevent abuse is get rid of billionaires. Tax them out of existence. Easy to do, popular, guaranteed to work, and would have good effects every way.


      "Easy to do"... LOL.

      You still have never explained where or how you would determine what constitutes "too much wealth" other than the inference that it is more wealth than you currently have.

      You also have never explained how you would spin this notion so it wouldn't be construed as a "success tax".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 10:22am

    Darla Williamson

    I like that judge Darla Williamson. She saw MJ for the waste of bytes it is. MJ has to win awards for tabloid click-baiting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:10am

      Re: Darla Williamson

      I like how you support an unfair bias when it fits your mantra. Nice and classy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 1:13pm

        Re: Re: Darla Williamson

        I don't see where it is unfair. As everyone knows, to read MJ you have to tilt your monitor to the left unless your head is on crooked.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          tracyanne (profile), 11 Oct 2015 @ 9:04pm

          Re: Re: Re: Darla Williamson

          I'd never heard of Mother Jones before, so I'd check them out, and they don't seem all that leftist at all. But then from where I stand your so called, leftist Politicians make Genghis Khan look like a Socialist.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Will-INI, 9 Oct 2015 @ 10:55am

    Lawsuit

    I hope Techdirt is able to cover the legal fees this article is going to cause. Which made me wonder, do you guys do a risk/reward on legal threats? If so, are some stories not written because they'd cause too much legal hassle? Is there a spreadsheet?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      jackn, 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:09am

      Re: Lawsuit

      Don't forget the 'legal spectrum.' Who would you rather fight, someone in it for the principle, or someone in it for the money. I think TD would be in it for the principle, and that is hard to beat, even with $.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:09am

    Don't really need to worry about legal stuff as someone as purely evil sick and perverted as Vandersloot will get his in the end eventually when he sues/molests the wrong person who will crash his charlatan piece of shit empire to dust.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2015 @ 11:09am

    multi-level marketing, dietary supplement company = ponzi / pyramid scheme.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Oct 2015 @ 12:48am

    He got to bully someone weaker than himself and was praised for it by those that are supposed to be a neutral party. of course he is happy.

    It's like a teacher breaking up a fight and telling the victim they deserved to be picked on by bullies because the teacher does not like how they dress or act.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Oct 2015 @ 10:58pm

    I used to work for this company in its manufacturing plant while going to school. just one more confirmation of why I didn't like it there. Add to this lawsuit the nepotism, skewed benefits for people in Idaho Falls only, and the lack of any acknowledgement of a job well done and you got a recipe for work force turnover.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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