Peter Thiel's Lawyer Now Sending Questionable Defamation Threat Letters To Media On Behalf Of Melania Trump

from the billionaires-censoring-the-press dept

Charles Harder is the California lawyer who likely will forever be known as "Peter Thiel's lawyer" after Thiel helped set up his own law firm with the "focal point" of hunting for any lawsuit that might destroy Gawker. It appears that Thiel is happy to share his pet lawyer with his new best buddy, Donald Trump, or Trump's wife, Melania. On Monday the UK's Daily Mail (not exactly known for its accuracy in reporting) received a threat letter from Harder, representing Melania Trump, claiming that its recent article on Melania was defamatory.

I'm not exactly sure where Mr. Harder is looking to sue but, if it's in the US, it's difficult to see how the article reaches the level of defamation by any stretch of the imagination. Melania Trump is, obviously, a public figure and, under US law, for a news report to be defamatory it needs to not only be incorrect and harmful but also published "with actual malice" -- meaning that the Daily Mail would have known that the published statements of fact were false, or they had a reckless disregard for the truth. Reading through the original Daily Mail article, I don't see how that could possibly be the case. The supposed "bombshell" claims in the piece are statements from a couple of different sources alleging that Melania was an escort when she first came to NY (and that may be how she met Donald in the first place). But the Mail is actually (somewhat surprisingly, given its reputation), quite careful with those statements, pointing out that they came from a book, but also noting that there's little evidence to back them up. It also points to a Slovenian magazine article claiming that the modelling agency Melania worked for was actually an escort service, but the Mail only notes that the magazine said this, and then gets a quote from the guy who ran the modelling agency saying (vehemently) that the story wasn't true.

Furthermore, the Daily Mail noted:
There is no evidence to back up these startling claims made in Suzy magazine.
The rest of the article is just kind of weird. Perhaps it's how the Mail normally reports, but much of the second half is stories from a guy who had a crush on Melania when they were both teens.

But, yeah, it's not at all clear how any of this rises to the level of defamation. The Daily Mail doesn't say anything defamatory about Melania at all. It just notes that certain sources (a book written by an anonymous author and a Slovenian magazine article) make these claims (both of which are accurate factual statements) and then notes that there's little actual evidence to back them up. And yes, this is a trashy tabloidy kind of thing to do ("some people say..." to say something mean, rather than making the case themselves), but it's difficult to see how it comes anywhere near the standard for actual defamation.

And it's not just the Daily Mail that Harder is going after. The Guardian reports that Harder has said that Melania may also sue Politico and the Week for reporting on her immigration status a few weeks back. You may remember the story. Politico noted some discrepancies in the timing of when Melania had claimed she had come to America, and the date of some nude photos that the NY Post dug up from a photo shoot in NY. That led Politico to raise questions about whether or not Melania was an illegal immigrant -- a bit of irony considering her husband's hardline stance against illegal immigration.

Once again, going through the Politico story, it's basically ridiculous to argue that anything in there is defamatory. Again: the statements need to be statements of fact (not just questioning things) that were made with "actual malice." There's no way the Politico article reaches that level.

But, again, we're talking about Charles Harder and the Trumps here, and the legitimacy of the case may be secondary to just threatening people. Trump, of course, has a long history of SLAPP-like lawsuits designed to bury journalists he doesn't like. And that's not me just saying that, Trump has flat out admitted to doing this:
Trump said in an interview that he knew he couldn’t win the suit but brought it anyway to make a point. "I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about."
And, again, that's the basis of Thiel's campaign against Gawker, where no matter what you think of the Hogan case, the other cases that Harder has filed against Gawker appear to pretty clearly be basic SLAPP suits designed to burden the company with legal fees.

And, of course, some smaller publications have already been intimidated into silence. The NY Times notes that Harder has contacted other publications as well (mainly those that wrote about the Daily Mail's article) and at least two of them have retracted or apologized for their original stories. Here's the Inquisitr apologizing and retracting its story and here's Liberal America doing the same thing. Liberal America flat out explains:
This is being written under duress because I don’t have enough money to fight a legal battle against the Trump machine.
You can see the full threat letter that Charles Harder sent on behalf of Melania and judge for yourself. Harder claims that he can show "actual malice" in the reporting "by nature of the fact that my client has publicly denied the foregoing statements." That's not, actually, how one proves "actual malice."

Without being able to see the original stories at Inquisitr and Liberal America, I can't say definitively if either one said anything that would be considered defamatory, but it certainly sounds like they were just quoting what was in the Daily Mail article, which does not seem to be defamatory.

So what are we left with? A thin-skinned Presidential candidate who has admitted to happily filing bogus lawsuits to burden journalists whose reporting he doesn't like, whose wife has teamed up with a lawyer who was basically set up in business to "focus" on filing a bunch of lawsuits for the purpose of overburdening a publication another billionaire disliked. People have been disagreeing with me over whether or not the Gawker shutdown is a big deal, insisting that "if you just don't publish private sex tapes, there won't be a problem." Yet, here we have publications already being intimidated into not publishing stories and other larger publications being threatened for reporting which does not appear to be defamatory at all.

Doesn't that seem the least bit problematic to some people?

Filed Under: charles harder, defamation, donald trump, free speech, journalism, melania trump, peter thiel, slapp, threats
Companies: daily mail, inquisitr, liberalamerica, politico


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2016 @ 9:59am

    Re: Wrong again, Mike

    Wrong about what? "Defamation per se" simply means that the statements are presumed to be harmful rather than needing to be proven harmful. As always in the US truth is an absolute defense. Mike notes that all statements claimed to be defamation are simply true statement of facts and thus cannot be defamation (of any type).

    As for why Mike is applying US law -- the cease and desist letter claiming defamation was sent from a US lawyer at a US law office. If he intended to bring suit for these claims in a UK court he should have sent the letters from a UK lawyer. As it is now it seems the lawyer is claiming defamation in the US from publication in the US of the statements by a UK publisher.

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