When I lived in London a few years back, I was really lucky to be able to work with people like Simon Singh and organizations like Sense About Science to help lobby the government to change their ridiculous libel laws that allowed pseudoscientists like the British Chiropractic Association to silence skeptics who expose them.
It was a bit of a relief to move back to the US because here we have much better libel laws, and as a skeptic who is constantly pointing out people who are evil frauds, it’s inevitable that sometimes those evil frauds will come after me.
But here’s the problem: the US doesn’t have a decent federal libel law. It’s state-by-state, and while I’ve been lucky to live in states like California that have excellent free speech protection, many people do not. So today let’s talk about Virginia, and why it needs to seriously get its fucking shit together.
Molly Conger is a journalist in Charlottesville, Virginia, which sadly is best known these days for being the place where a bunch of Nazis marched through the streets with torches, and then one Nazi murdered a protestor with his car. She had a regular article in the Charlottesville Weekly, and back in May she wrote about the fact that the Charlottesville police had recently given a promotion to Officer Logan Woodzell, who previously appeared in a photo palling around with two of the neo-Nazis who organized the Unite the Right rally. She also pointed out that Woodzell had gone out of his way to escort some of the Nazis to the park on the day of the rally. She wrote that instead of taking these issues head on, the police chief was spending time and energy attacking the Police Civilian Review Board that was set up to address the problem of police officers standing by while citizens were violently attacked by white supremacicists.
Woodzell hired an attorney, who threatened to sue Conger for libeling him by pointing out that he was in the photo with his arm around neo-Nazis and that he escorted some neo-Nazis to the rally. These are actual, unassailable facts but Woodzell’s attorney claimed that they amounted to Conger saying that Woodzell himself had white supremacist views.
It’s a ridiculous lawsuit that can never win. First of all, she didn’t say Woodzell had white supremacist views. She merely stated the facts and pointed out that the police department not addressing those facts betrayed public interest.
Second of all, this was in an opinion column. If she had said, “It’s my opinion that this guy is a white supremacist” that is protected speech.
Third of all, in my opinion, that guy is totally a fucking white supremacist. You don’t take a photo with your arms around members of neo-Nazi militias unless you’re at least sympathetic to the cause. IN MY OPINION, like, that’s not something I would do. Unless I was in the middle of having a brain aneurysm and two neo-Nazi militia members ran up and took a quick photo of me while I was distracted. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe logic doesn’t exist anymore.
Conger wanted to fight the legal threat from Woodzell but the Charlottesville Weekly didn’t, so instead they just quietly fired her and removed the article from their website. Thankfully the internet is forever so we can all still read it and know that the Charlottesville police decided to promote a guy who appears to be buddies with neo-Nazi militias who helped murder a woman last year.
In a state with better anti-SLAPP regulations like California, that wouldn’t have happened. In 2017 Virginia updated their laws to be slightly better, as originally they only protected people who made statements at government functions like city council meetings, but now they cover journalists as well. And the fact that they have an anti-SLAPP statute at all puts them ahead of states like Alabama. But while searching to find out exactly how bad Virginia’s laws are, I came across the news that apparently they are so bad that thin-skinned congress critter Devin Nunes is suing people who make fun of him in Virginia’s courts, despite the fact that he, his critics, and Twitter (the medium his critics use) are all based in California.
He may still lose, but in Virginia defendants have to pay a lot more money to defend themselves compared to in California, where anti-SLAPP laws are designed to allow stupid lawsuits to be dismissed much earlier in the process before the person needs to hire lawyers and start paying through the nose. That threat of needing money to defend yourself, even though you are right and would eventually win the case (though not necessarily be able to win your money back), is often enough to get people to delete their criticisms. That’s what the Charlottesville Weekly did, and they’re a business, not an individual who conceivably has even fewer resources.
That’s the chilling effect of libel threats, and that’s why we need to strengthen libel laws in every state to protect those who are speaking truth to power.