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.