Skepticism

The (Final?) Cost of Ben Radford’s Libel Bullying: About $5K

The story thus far: skeptical writer Karen Stollznow accused deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine Ben Radford of sexual harassment. I reported on that. Radford sued Stollznow for defamation. I reported on that. Before the case went to court, Stollznow apparently signed a retraction. I reported on that. Radford threatened to sue me for my reporting. I reported on that, while hiring a lawyer to protect myself and starting a fundraiser to cover the costs of that lawyer. Radford then seemed to change his mind about suing me.

Though Radford may still change his mind again and decide to sue me, I’ve closed the fundraiser and collected the funds. The total funds raised were $9,606. After 3% + $0.30 per transaction payment processing fees totaling $356.58, the final sum was $9,249.42. Thank you so much to everyone who donated. You made this process so much less stressful than it could have been, for reasons I’ll now briefly detail.

So much of the process of hiring lawyers to battle one another is shrouded in secrecy, which I believe is mostly due to lawyers (rightly) trying to protect their client from any kind of lawsuit. Lawyers know that you can get sued for pretty much anything, even if you’re in the right, and so I believe that they’re generally very cautious about what they recommend you talk about publicly.

Still, I think there’s a huge public interest in understanding exactly why libel threats are so often successful at censoring speech. In my experience, it comes down to two reasons: the enormous potential cost (both financial and psychological) of going to court, and the slightly lower enormous actual cost (both financial and psychological) of what happens before you even get to a courtroom.

You can probably try to imagine the psychological costs, if you’re familiar with great amounts of stress over financial issues. Lack of sleep, upset stomachs, lost hours staring at walls, and generally being no fun at parties are the primary results of stress for me. “Hey Rebecca, what are you up to these days?” “GIVING A LAWYER ALL MY MONEY WHY DO YOU ASK???”

You’re probably less familiar with what the actual financials are in a case like this. I know this is true thanks to the many people (well-meaning friends included) who informed me that one can consult with a lawyer for free, and just getting them to respond to a cease and desist shouldn’t be very expensive. If you take nothing else from this post, take this: if you have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to legal issues like this, don’t offer “friendly” advice. You’re just going to make the aforementioned psychological cost that much worse.

My lawyer has sent me what we both hope will be his final bill for this matter, assuming that Radford doesn’t move forward on his initial threats.

The bill totaled $4,984.22.

It came with a very helpful itemized list showing every minute my lawyer worked on this case, which amounted to quite a few hours of work. And remember: this is for a case that never went to court, and hasn’t actually resulted in a filing (yet). Also, I’ll say that my lawyer was very, very kind when it came to the final tally of hours worked.

A large part of that cost was due to the initial vagueness of Radford’s threat, and our repeated attempts to gain any kind of understanding of what exactly he felt was libelous and what actions he wanted me to take. There were several letters sent to Radford’s attorneys and even an in-person meeting, none of which resulted in any satisfying answers, which is the point at which I went public.

Another detail to note is that to hire my lawyer, I needed to come up with a retainer of several thousand dollars. I couldn’t go public at that point, so I needed to use credit cards to do it and hope that I could come up with the money later (which I did, thanks to many of you who donated).

Again, I’m detailing all this publicly so that you truly understand the enormous cost of protecting speech and that you bear it in mind the next time you hear someone make threats to sue for defamation.

After deducting the cost of my legal fees, I’ll be left with $4,265.20 from the fundraiser. I’ll have to pay taxes on the full $9,249.42 that I collected, which I estimate to be $2,312.36 for federal and $739.95 for state, so $3,052.31 total. Yikes.

Still, that leaves a total of $1,212.89 that I’ll have leftover to donate as soon as I get a solid indication that Radford has left me alone for good. As I mentioned previously, all leftover money will go to either anyone else Radford has threatened or the EFF. I’ll post an update once I’m able to do that.

Once again, thank you to everyone who donated and who offered their support. Special thanks to Ken (@Popehat) for helping me find the best libel defense lawyer in New Mexico and for giving me that sweet, sweet free advice I’ve heard so much about, even though that free advice did amount to “hire a lawyer immediately.”

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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18 Comments

  1. September 17, 2015 at 2:37 pm —

    It is crazy how much you can spend without even stepping into a courtroom (or having your lawyer step in there for you). I’ve got several friends and relatives who are lawyers and they’re the first to acknowledge that it is prohibitive for a significant portion of the population.

    In my local community there are a few terrible people who shut down anyone who criticizes them or opposes any of their projects by threatening lawsuits in order to intimidate them into going away, and it’s a shame as it has reduced public participation in a lot of important ways.

  2. September 17, 2015 at 2:42 pm —

    Out of curiosity, why New Mexico? Is that where you live, or Radford lives, or some other reason?

    • September 17, 2015 at 2:53 pm —

      It’s where Radford lives.

    • September 17, 2015 at 4:26 pm —

      Yeah, it’s where he lives. The laws in NM are more favorable to someone suing for libel, compared to here in California.

  3. September 17, 2015 at 2:56 pm —

    Yuck. Sorry to hear all of this. I also literally can’t remember if I was one of the people who suggested you get free legal advice, but I did think about trying to hook you up with a lawyer friend. Now I can’t remember whether I actually offered or not, but on the off-chance that I DID make the offer and did contribute to your stress, I’m sorry. I’ve also endured the stress of people telling me how to solve problems I don’t want (their) help solving.

    To the rest of this: What a fucking disaster. It really shines a light on another issue, too: That when people bend and sign statements, it’s not hard to imagine that they were financially bullied into doing so.

    • September 17, 2015 at 3:25 pm —

      Good point. Where have I heard about someone signing a statement which made a threatened law suit go away? Oh, yeah, and babies are wicked expensive… Correlation or causation?

      Congrats Rebecca and all us minions for contributing so much, but I was really surprised how much taxes took away from the surplus. You might be able to get a portion of that back as a charitable deduction if you give the surplus to a 501(c)(3) (which the EFF is), but it will be less than one might expect. Depends on your tax bracket and whether you have enough deductions to exceed your standard deduction. Maybe a few hundred bucks.

      P.S. I still owe you a beer for fixing the Boston Skeptics web site…

    • September 17, 2015 at 4:27 pm —

      Nah, you didn’t contribute to the stress. Thanks, though :D

      • September 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm —

        Oh, good. Glad my forgetfulness benefitted me!

        Radford also vaguely threatened potential lawsuits against me, on the phone (but then told me he really did “not want to have to do that,” as I recall). He thinks he can just muscle people into silence. Picked the wrong ladies.

        • September 17, 2015 at 6:03 pm —

          To paraphrase my favorite Space Ranger, “He is a sad, strange little man, and he has my pity.”

  4. September 17, 2015 at 3:05 pm —

    Ugh, that’s awful.

    If you itemize then any donations you’re making should be tax-deductible, so you should only have to worry about taxes on the $4,984.22 and I guess the taxes on the income used for the taxes, giving about $2000 more to donate. But if you’re taking the standard deduction then you don’t have that option.

    Of course, talking to a tax professional about this also costs money… Sorry If this adds stress to an annoying situation, but I thought you should know there is a chance of donating more of that money rather than paying it all in taxes.

  5. September 17, 2015 at 3:58 pm —

    Curious about the taxability of the cash from the fundraiser. Couldn’t this be considered gift income and therefore not be taxable?

    I’m a licensed tax preparer in Oregon, but have never dealt with this specific issue, so I’m just honestly curious.

    • September 17, 2015 at 4:14 pm —

      Ooh, that would be awesome. I’m going to finally hire a CPA this year, so I’ll run it past them as soon as I do.

      • September 17, 2015 at 5:04 pm —

        Good idea. This is one of those grey areas where you’re gonna want want professional advice. I haven’t heard of any tax law or IRS rulings on these kinds of fundraisers, but given how quickly they’re proliferating, it probably won’t be long.

        Sorry you had to go through this ordeal. Another reminder of how much it costs to have free speech & a free press. Keep up the good work! =)

    • September 24, 2015 at 2:10 pm —

      Sorry for the late response, but that’s exactly what I was thinking. On one of the crowdfunding sites, it mentioned this scenario specifically. I don’t remember which site I was reading. If I can find, I will post a link.

  6. September 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm —

    Every time I hear about a libel suit it seems to be a case of a scumbag trying to hide his scummy actions. Does anyone know of a libel suit in which defendant is at least possibly in the wrong? Would it be possible to reform libel laws so they do more good than harm, or would it be better to just abolish them?

    • September 17, 2015 at 7:40 pm —

      Palioclimatologist Dr. Michael Mann suing Mark Steyn, the Competitive Entreprise Instutute and National Review Online for being called a fraud and the Jerry Sandusky of climate researchers, “except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.”.

      Does that count?

  7. September 18, 2015 at 6:42 am —

    You should not owe taxes on monetary gifts. If anyone has to pay taxes, it’s the giver of the gift, and even then only if it’s over $14K.

    http://www.irs.com/articles/7-things-you-should-know-about-gift-tax

  8. September 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm —

    The real error in both graphs is that there haven’t been any tax cuts or tax rises.

    Unless the government spends less money, any tax ‘cut’ it simply deferring the date that the tax will be paid. The 99% will be paying for George W. Bush’s gift to the 0.1% for the next thirty years and with interest.

    So those 15 Republicans are actually offering tax rises. They just hope y’all will prove as stupid and as ignorant as the folk who voted for W.

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