Published on September 29th, 2016 | by Becky Striepe
Billionaires Suing Journalists is a Hip New Trend
A free press is one of the key elements of a thriving democracy and a fair and just society. Some people believe they go too far and take them to court to keep them quiet. What do you think?
Billionaires suing journalists into silence might sound like some kind of tinfoil hat conspiracy theory, but according to an open letter from Mother Jones CEO, Monika Bauerlein, it’s becoming business-as-usual for thin-skinned billionaires. Bauerlein cites several examples of billionaires suing journalists for reporting things they didn’t like:
+ Peter Theil’s war on Gawker Media, which led to the company’s bankruptcy.
+ Sheldon Anderson suing reporters and eventually purchasing the Las Vegas Review-Journal, because he didn’t like their investigative pieces.
+ Donald Trump suing a reporter “to make his life miserable.” Trump also says he’d like to broaden libel laws in the U.S., so more public figures can sure more reporters for doing their jobs.
+ Billionaire Frank Vandersloot suing Bauerlein’s own publication, Mother Jones, for reporting on Vandersloot’s political donations.
+ UPDATE (10/13/2016) – Donald Trump threatens to sue the New York Times unless they retract a story about two women who claim that he sexually assaulted them.
Opponents to these kinds of lawsuits call them “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPP suits), and there is a movement to ban them. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls them, “an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses, often for environmental and local land development issues.”
The point of a SLAPP suit isn’t to win. It’s to hurt the journalist’s credibility and take up his or her time and money.
What do SLAPP suits have to do with green living?
SLAPP suits might not seem like a environmental issue, but often these lawsuits are trying to squelch reporting on issues that would harm the environment. Even the threat of a costly lawsuit can be enough to silence critics.
In an article for the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, attorney Dwight H. Merriam points out, “If people become afraid to speak out about perceived problems in their communities, the result could be disastrous. In his criticism of SLAPP suits, Attorney General [Robert] Abrams posed the troubling question of how much longer Love Canal might have gone unchecked if we lived in a society without a significant level of public participation.’ He correctly characterized public participation in environmental matters as ‘the cornerstone of our very survival as a planet.’ That cornerstone is now being chipped away.”
In the case of Mother Jones, it took almost three years and over $600,000 to put Vandersloot’s SLAPP suit against them to rest. They won the case in 2015, but they’re still struggling to pay off the last of their massive legal fees. They’ve paid $350,000, but according to Bauerlein, they still owe around $175,000. If you want to help the nonprofit out, you can donate here.
Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by Pete Birkinshaw.