The Lawyers Using Defamation Lawsuits to Address Political Disinformation

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The Lawyers Using Defamation Lawsuits to Address Political Disinformation


Michael J. Gottlieb can never remember the exact amount — it’s $148,169,000 — that a jury ordered Rudolph W. Giuliani to pay Georgia poll workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. But Ms Freeman’s words after the victory in December 2023 are indelible to him.

“Don’t waste your time being angry at those who did this to me and my daughter,” said Ms. Freeman, 65, who, along with her daughter Ms. Moss, 39, was falsely accused by Mr. Giuliani of a planned conspiracy to have helped steal the 2020 presidential election.

“We are more than conquerors.”

Less than a decade ago, the two women would have struggled to find a lawyer. But Mr. Gottlieb, a partner at the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a former associate counsel in the Obama White House, represented her for free. Convinced that viral lies threaten public discourse and democracy, he leads a small but growing group of lawyers who are using libel, one of the oldest areas of the law, as a weapon against a tide of political disinformation.

Mr. Gottlieb has also represented the owner of the Washington pizzeria targeted by “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorists, as well as the brother of Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee staffer whose murder in 2016 sparked false theories that spread through his family to involve. In the Giuliani case, Mr. Gottlieb, his law partner Meryl Governski and other members of his team worked with Protect Democracy, a bipartisan group that advocates for laws and policies to counter what they see as authoritarian threats.

However, before the Trump era and the explosion of social media, such cases were virtually non-existent.

“The new information landscape we find ourselves in is a bit like the Wild West – a lawless space,” said Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy. Lawyers, he said, have turned to defamation, which is legally defined as any false information, whether published, broadcast or spoken, that damages the reputation of a person, company or organization. “It is one of the most effective and only strategies to deal with these outright falsehoods,” Mr. Bassin said.

In recent years, more than a dozen high-profile defamation cases have been heard in court. The majority have been brought against right-wing defendants, but the right also brings lawsuits, often against media organizations.

In 2020 and 2021, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC settled a defamation case brought by Nick Sandmann, a Kentucky high school student who said the media falsely described his encounter with a Native American elder as a racially tinged confrontation. Mr. Sandmann’s lawsuit against other media outlets, including the New York Times, ended last week when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The payouts for defamation lawsuits against the right were particularly high. In January, lawyer Roberta Kaplan defeated former President Donald J. Trump in court when a jury ordered him to pay $83 million for sexually abusing her client E. Jean Carroll, a writer. had defamed. Last year, lawyers at Fox News’ Susman Godfrey firm secured a $787.5 million settlement for Dominion Voting Systems, one of the largest ever in a defamation case, after Fox spread false theories falsely implicating the company in election fraud connected. In late 2022, Sandy Hook families defamed by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones won a total of nearly $1.5 billion from juries in Texas and Connecticut, even though Mr. Jones has yet to pay them anything.

In other cases, the injured parties, like Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, cannot afford lawyers or have difficulty finding firms willing to pursue defendants who are unable or resistant to paying large damages, like Mr Giuliani. Mr. Gottlieb tried to close this gap.

“The cost of bringing a defamation lawsuit to court can be enormous, often amounting to more than a quarter of a million dollars, not to mention attorney time,” said Mark Bankston, a lawyer for some of the Sandy Hook families defamed by Mr. Jones.

Mr. Gottlieb and his team describe their cases as a “hobby” serving those whose lives and reputations have been damaged by people with power and large online followings. “I have always despised bullies who attack defenseless or seemingly defenseless people,” Gottlieb, 47, said in an interview in his office on K Street in Washington. “There are so many ways to assert your political positions without endangering the lives of individual people.”

Mr. Gottlieb’s day job is filled with the extensive client list more typical of large Washington law firms. He has represented Venezuelan oil company Citgo; helped billionaire Steven A. Cohen overcome a possible lifetime ban from managing client money after he was accused of insider trading at Cohen’s former hedge fund; and worked with President Biden’s son Hunter on behalf of a Romanian real estate tycoon whose seven-year prison sentence for corruption was later overturned by a Romanian court.

“I understand that there are definitely people who would say, ‘Wait a minute – litigation for Citgo is not the same as the litigation you’re pursuing for Ruby and Shaye,'” he said. “I feel fortunate to have had a career where I have had a variety of cases and a practice that trains different skills and different parts of my brain.”

“However people want to think about it and look at it, that’s fine with me.”

Mr. Gottlieb, who clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens and served on an Obama administration anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan, made his first foray into the post-truth world in 2016. That’s when Mr. Jones and his Infowars outlet spread the lie that Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party operatives from Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizzeria owned by James Alefantis, were running a child trafficking ring.

In December of that year, a man who had been enjoying Infowars’ “Pizzagate” episodes fired a gun in the restaurant. No one was injured, but the shooter’s trip to Washington to avenge an imagined crime foreshadowed a series of violent attacks by conspiracy theorists, including the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Mr. Jones insisted that the First Amendment protected the lies he told, as did most of the defendants in these cases. However, facing legal action, he revoked the broadcast and removed all Pizzagate content from Infowars’ website and social media channels. The full settlement remains confidential.

Shortly after the Pizzagate case, Mr. Gottlieb represented Aaron Rich, whose brother, Seth Rich, 27, worked for the Democratic National Committee and was shot in a botched robbery in 2016. The case remains unsolved and wild theories that Seth Rich was killed by Democrats have spread from online fever swamps to Fox News. Aaron Rich and his parents were caught up in the conspiracies, drugged and harassed.

“If this had happened to me or my brother or my sister and someone had done this to my parents, I would be completely distraught,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “And no one helped them.”

In 2018, Mr. Gottlieb and Aaron Rich sued the Washington Times as well as an Internet provocateur, Matt Couch, and a businessman, Ed Butowsky, for spreading falsehoods that the two brothers sold DNC documents, leading to the murder of Seth Rich led. Mr. Rich ultimately received a confidential settlement that included a retraction of the falsehoods spread by the men and the newspaper and an apology to the Rich family. Mr. Rich’s parents retained Susman Godfrey and sued Fox News. They received a confidential cash settlement, but no apology.

The Rich case had lasted years. At one point, Mr. Gottlieb was named in a sweeping defamation lawsuit filed by one of the defendants that was later dropped.

The aftermath of the 2020 election led to more calls from potential customers. Mr. Gottlieb appealed for help to Mr. Bassin, the co-founder of Protect Democracy, who had served with Mr. Gottlieb in the Obama White House counsel’s office.

Less than two months later, Mr. Gottlieb and his team drafted the complaint in the case of Ruby Freeman et al. against Rudolph Giuliani.

In his frantic public struggle to claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani, the former president’s lawyer, had pushed the false story that Ms. Freeman and her daughter, Ms. Moss, had worked together to falsify results Counting ballots in Georgia. He falsely claimed that a video showing Ms Freeman handing her daughter a small object – a ginger mint – shows the two women exchanging USB sticks “as if they were vials of heroin and cocaine”.

Mr. Trump repeated the false accusations. In an infamous recorded phone call with election officials in Georgia, Trump repeatedly singled out Ms. Freeman, calling her a “professional voter fraudster” and “agitator.”

Threats were received against the two women. People called them traitors and used racial slurs to demand that they be lynched or shot. Others knocked on Ms. Freeman’s front door and lurked outside her home, forcing her to hide. Ms. Moss had to quit her job as a poll worker and struggled to find work.

Mr. Giuliani said he would prove his innocence. But he failed to produce court-ordered documents, testify or call witnesses. In the courtroom, he fumbled with his phone and rolled his eyes as the two women described their horror.

In December, a federal court jury in Washington ordered Mr. Giuliani to pay Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss the $148 million. The case was put on hold after Mr. Giuliani filed for bankruptcy, and Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss are now suing Mr. Giuliani again over his continued false statements about them.

Law for Truth, part of Protect Democracy, has since filed defamation lawsuits against the makers of the election conspiracy theory film “20,000 Mules”; James O’Keefe, the former leader of Project Veritas, a right-wing group known for its covert operations; and Kari Lake, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, spoke about the 2020 election on behalf of people tainted by lies.

Despite the activity, lawyers who see themselves as crusaders against lies are not declaring victory. Their cases are high-profile and target key spreaders of disinformation, but they recognize that they do not address broader disinformation, such as false statements about Covid vaccines.

“I think these lawsuits could be effective in curbing some of the worst viral disinformation,” said Katie Fallow, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “But the effectiveness of these lawsuits may be limited if there are other incentives, particularly political ones, to proliferate them.”

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.



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2024-03-31 19:11:53

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