The First Amendment provides the press some of the greatest protections in the world against liability from powerful forces attempting to use libel law to silence critics. Unfortunately, that won’t stop many wealthy individuals and corporations from trying to sue smaller news organizations and bloggers—even knowing they will lose the case—in the hopes the long legal process will bankrupt them, or scare them into settling.
That’s exactly what happened to Mother Jones and Idaho-based reporter Peter Zuckerman when they investigated billionaire Frank Vandersloot in 2012 and were viciously sued by Vandersloot in 2013, despite the fact that their reporting was protected by the First Amendment. Mother Jones thankfully won their lawsuit against Vandersloot two weeks ago, but much of the damage was already done: they spent over $2.5 million dollars defending themselves and Zuckerman.
Mother Jones, a non-profit, is currently asking for donations to defray the significant costs of the lawsuit, and First Look Media is matching donations up to $74,999. It's a great cause and you can donate here.
This type of end-run around the First Amendment by wealthy individuals is a disturbing problem. Glenn Greenwald reported for Salon in 2012 how Vandersloot and his company Melaleuca Inc often threatened to sue local bloggers who wrote critical stories about him and intimidated multiple news organizations into taking news stories down for fear of an expensive lawsuit.
Despite the negative publicity that resulted from his underhanded tactics, Vandersloot ended up following through and suing Mother Jones in 2013 for a story that reported on his then anti-gay rights views and a tweet from one of the magazine’s editor referring to him as “gay bashing.” (Vandersloot has said he has since changed his mind on the subject.)
Legally, what we fought over was what, precisely, the terms "bashing" and "outing" meant in the context of our article. (Read the decision for yourself.) But make no mistake: This was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a superrich businessman and donor, to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of.
Even though they ultimately won, Mother Jones spent upwards of 2.5 million dollars on legal fees. Despite the suit clearly being frivolous, Vandersloot won’t have to pay a dime to them—since he filed the suit in his home state of Idaho, which is one of 21 states that does not have an anti-SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”) statute.
Anti-SLAPP laws prevent strategic defamation lawsuits—frequently filed by plaintiffs with deep pockets—that have little to no chance of winning, yet are aimed at pressuring the target into settling for fear of expensive litigation. In short, anti-SLAPP laws prevent incredibly wealthy people from using their money to create their own loophole in the First Amendment.
It’s way past due that we close that loophole. A federal anti-SLAPP statute, called the SPEAK FREE Act, was introduced in Congress in May, and has over 25 co-sponsors. You can visit Public Participation Project to find out more about the bill and how to contact your representative to support it.