Project Veritas Not Only Loses Its Vexatious SLAPP Suit Against Stanford, It Has To Pay The University’s Legal Fees
from the thank-you-anti-slapp-laws dept
Project Veritas, the faux conservative group of pranksters pretending to be journalists likes to pretend that they’re “free speech” supporters. But they’re not. They appear to really only support their own free speech, and have a much more flexible view of free speech when it includes speech critical of themselves. Over the past few years, Project Veritas (PV) has gotten fairly aggressive in suing organizations that are critical of PV. That’s… not very free speechy. PV has tried to silence the NY Times, has sued CNN, and last year it sued Stanford and the University of Washington over a blog post debunking some of the usual nonsense from PV.
A few months back, we reported that CNN won its case against PV. But, also, back in May we missed that a judge also dismissed PV’s case against Stanford. Basically, saying mean things about PV is not defamation, because opinions aren’t defamation tough guys:
Viewing the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes that the phrases in the Blog Post that Project Veritas challenges as defamatory are nonactionable opinions. In considering the medium and context, “statements of opinion are expected to be found more often in certain contexts, such as editorial pages or political debates.” Dunlap v. Wayne, 105 Wn.2d 529, 539, 716 P.2d 842 (1986). Here, the statements regard whether claims of election fraud were based on misleading or inaccurate information. Throughout the 2020 presidential election, statements regarding election fraud often resulted in heated and emotional discussions. See Camer, 45 Wn. App. at 41 (determining that an article about issues resulting in heated and often emotional discussions constituted nonactionable opinion). This context suggests that the Blog Post is providing opinions.
Additionally, “[t]he court should consider the entire communication and note whether the speaker qualified the defamatory statement with cautionary ‘terms of apparency.’” Life Designs Ranch, 191 Wn. App. at 331 (quoting Dunlap, 105 Wn.2d at 539). Project Veritas challenges only a couple phrases of the Blog Post as defamatory and agrees that the majority of the Blog Post “purported to be a technical study of whether and how prominent conservatives had worked to promote and ‘aggressively spread’ the [Video Report].” Compl. at ¶ 82. Indeed, the Blog Post focuses on describing when posts about the Video Report were made on social media, who made them, and how influencers strategically worked to gain visibility for the Video Report. See EIP Blog Post. Thus, not only were the allegedly defamatory portions of the Blog Post an exceedingly small piece of the Blog Post, they also did not relate to the main subject of the Blog Post. That Project Veritas fails to take issue with the Blog Post as a whole, and instead cherry picks just a couple phrases as defamatory, does not weigh in its favor. Furthermore, EIP qualified one of the challenged statements by saying that it had determined that the Video Report was part of a disinformation campaign. This language constituted a “term of apparency” and signaled to the reader that the statement was one of opinion rather than fact….
The specific words used in the Blog Post were also indicative of them being opinions because they are incapable of defamatory meaning. Words that have imprecise meaning are incapable of being defamatory because they are not provably false. Paterson, 502 F. Supp. 2d at 1134–35. Courts have found phrases like “rip-off,” “fraud,” and “unethical” are nonactionable because of their imprecise meaning and because they are susceptible to many interpretations. See id. at 1135 & n.2. In this case, one cannot determine the truth or falsity for the phrases that Project Veritas alleges to be defamatory. For example, the statement that the Video Report is “misleading” or constitutes “disinformation” is capable of many interpretations and thus cannot be proven true or false. See Phantom Touring, Inc v. Affiliated Publ’ns, 953 F.2d 724, 728 n.7 (1st Cir. 1992) (“Even the less figurative assertion that appellants are ‘blatantly misleading the public,” . . . is subjective and imprecise, and therefore not capable of verification or refutation by means of objective proof.”). The statement that the Video Report had been “debunked” is similarly incapable of being proven true or false.
Anyway, that ruling actually came down in May, but we get to revisit it now, because last week, the judge took the next step. Because it was determined that the original lawsuit by PV was a SLAPP under Washington’s anti-SLAPP law, that meant that PV could be on the hook for Stanford’s legal fees… and that portion of the case has concluded with… PV being told to pay up to the tune of $149,596.90.
For what it’s worth, PV tried to get around having to pay by arguing that Washington’s anti-SLAPP’s fee shifting provisions can’t be applied in federal court. The court dismisses this argument in a footnote, and says that the fees requested by Stanford are reasonable under the law, and makes no adjustment on Stanford’s requested about.
Anyway, it’s pretty incredible that an organization that holds itself out as supporting free speech would ever try to argue that an anti-SLAPP law can’t apply in federal court. That’s just an undeniably anti-free speech position to take. Again, this is just a reminder that PV, for all its lofty talk about free speech, seems to be the same kind of anti-speech, pro-censorial organization like so many others when the speech is about itself.
Of course, this story is yet another reminder that strong anti-SLAPP laws are one of this country’s best protections for free speech, and against censorial thuggery. This is also why we need better state anti-SLAPP laws in every state AND a strong federal anti-SLAPP laws. If PV were an actual free speech organization it would be supporting such laws — not trying to tear them down and filing SLAPP suits.