It’s a big week for defamation cases — and threats!
In the wake of Dominion settling its incredibly valid defamation lawsuit against Fox News for $787 million, it’s important to remember that most defamation cases are stupid bullshit that waste the time of our courts and taxpayer money, all in an effort to stop other people from criticizing the rich and powerful.
But remember we shall, thanks to three Republicans who couldn’t help but make fools of themselves in order to aid us all in our continuing civic education. In Texas, secessionists have filed a defamation lawsuit arguing that it’s illegal to call seceding from the union “seditious treason.” In Florida, a state legislator is threatening to sue her constituents for defamation for stating true facts to her face. And in Utah and/or DC, Senator Mike Lee continues to make us all wonder if he did, in fact, actually go to law school. (Maybe he attended with George Santos?)
So let’s dig in!
Let’s start in Texas
Jeff Leach is a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives. He’s, well, pretty terrible on most issues. He doesn’t think women are full citizens and supports total abortion bans. He opposes gun regulation, wants a constitutional amendment to ban state income tax, and supported SB 1, a voter disenfranchisement bill Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed last year.
However, unlike many other members of his party, Representative Leach does not actually support sedition and treason against the United States.
Texas always has some crazies talking about seceding from the union. And for extra special fun, those crazies include several Republican members of the state Legislature! Last month, these anti-America enthusiasts introduced HB 3596, which they call the “TEXIT Referendum Act.” In effect, the TEXIT bill would trigger a statewide vote on whether or not Texans want to engage in Civil War 2.0. (And not for nothing, the author of HB 3596 was none other than Representative Bryan Slaton, whose other key issues include calling drag queens groomers and taking rights away from women … and who has recently been credibly accused of sexual misconduct for preying on a young Capitol intern who is “under the age of 21.”
In fact, he’s been so credibly accused that last night he resigned!)[Due to an editing mistake by me, the Editrix, we incorrectly said Slaton had resigned. In fact, that was an entirely different Tennessee Republican member of the House who resigned after serial grotesque sexual harassment of House interns. You can understand our mistake. No apologies to Bryan Slaton.]
To his credit, Leach was … not a fan of the TEXIT proposal.
So far, Leach has been right and the TEXIT bill has not moved since being assigned to committee.
But now, we get to the good part.
Wednesday, while he was chairing a House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee hearing, Leach was served with a truly ridiculous defamation lawsuit about … his tweets.
The person suing Leach is Morgan McComb, a constituent with a very sane Twitter feed who fancies herself a “Republican activist.” She describes herself in her bio as “A TRUE Conservative TX Grassroots Leader, Mom & Patriot Community RE-Organizer. Rescues horses. God Guns Guts and Glory!” so you just know she’s on the level. McComb is also currently under felony indictment for violating Texas’s online impersonation statute. In 2020, she allegedly used “the name and photo of a rival Republican campaign operative in Frisco” and “used the account to publish the other campaigner’s records from family court, psychological and counseling records, and a criminal court record.” She seems nice!
So McComb is, umm, an interesting character. But when you come across a case this bad, you also have to consider the lawyer. McComb’s lawyer in this truly ridiculous case is Frisco-based Paul Davis. Davis is a supergenius who posted a video of himself outside the Capitol at the January 6 insurrection and still thinks he did nothing wrong. Since losing his old lawyer job for, you know, participating in a coup attempt, McComb has decided to make a name for himself by filing the worst lawsuits he can think of and branding himself a “lawyer for patriots.” He also has the dubious achievement of filing perhaps the most bogus of all the anti-democracy suits after the 2020 election, arguing the entire 117th Congress was “illegitimately elected.” (Here’s that complaint. It’s a doozy.)
The suit is being funded by the “Texas Nationalist Movement,” a group of people who are exactly who you think they are. TNM has apparently been excitedly hoping for an opportunity to file exactly this ridiculous lawsuit for a while now, with a blog on its site from July 2022 titled “Should TEXIT Supporters Sue Opposers Who Accuse Us of Treason?”
The suit against Leach for all the libelslander is pretty much what you would expect from all of these brilliant minds.
To the Complaint!
Although McComb whines about several of Leach’s tweets in the complaint, there is only one where he addresses her directly.
According to McComb, this defames both her and … the Texas secessionist movement?
“In fact, one obstacle to the movement for Texas independence is that many people mistakenly believe that it literally is sedition or treason to advocate for Texas independence.”
According to the complaint, Leach’s tweet is defamation per se, because “Neither McComb’s support for the TEXIT Bill nor a belief that “Texas should secede from the United States” fit the definition of treason or sedition under the United States Code or any other applicable law.”
Adorably, taking a close look at the complaint itself shows just how meritless it is. The case the suit cites for support is Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity v. Dickinson, where the Texas Supreme Court just ruled … that it was not defamatory for a forced birth proponent to call abortion rights activists “murderers.”
We hold that the challenged statements are protected opinion about abortion law made in pursuit of changing that law, placing them at the heart of protected speech under the United States and Texas Constitutions. Such opinions are constitutionally protected even when the speaker applies them to specific advocacy groups that support abortion rights. In our state and nation, an advocate is free “to speak, write or publish his opinions on any subject,” perhaps most especially on controversial subjects like legalized abortion.
To most people with a modicum of logical reasoning, it would be pretty obvious that this case does not, in fact, support a finding of defamation here. But, according to the complaint,
Leach’s statements can be distinguished from
the statements at issue in the Dickson case because a reasonably
intelligent member of the public is not equipped with the same general
understanding and awareness that supporting Texas independence is not
sedition or treason as compared to the general understanding that
abortion is not legally defined to be murder.
In fact, one obstacle to the movement for Texas independence is that many people mistakenly believe that it literally is sedition or treason to advocate for Texas independence. Thus, the holding the Texas Supreme Court reversing the Dallas Court of Appeals holding in Dickson does not apply to the facts of this case. Therefore, under the reasoning of the Dickson precedent, Leach’s statement is actionable defamation.
No, I don’t have any ungodly idea what that is supposed to mean. And at no other point does the complaint attempt to explain why it’s constitutionally protected speech to call someone a murderer but not a traitor. Or, for that matter, how McComb and her buddies plan on seceding from the union without committing treason or sedition. Since in our history, seceding from the union tends to be an act of war, and therefore, you know, seditious treason.
But let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story!
Meanwhile, in Florida …
Earlier this week, Florida state Senator Ileana Garcia voted for SB 1718, a bill that would make it a felony for anyone in Florida to associate with an undocumented person. While a group of Floridians talked to Garcia about her vote, Thomas Kennedy, an immigrant and political activist, called her “illegitimate” and stated that she won her election because of “a ghost candidate.”
Guess what? It’s true! Alex Rodriguez, the ghost candidate in question, pleaded guilty to taking bribes in the election fraud scheme that helped elect Garcia. He was recruited by Frank Artiles, a former Florida state senator, who paid Rodriguez to change his party affiliation from Republican to independent and put his name on the ballot.
The reason? The incumbent Democrat in the district in question also had the last name Rodriguez. In the end, Rodriguez the ghost candidate, who did not campaign at all, received 6,382 votes. Garcia won her senate seat by 32 votes.
So, naturally, Senator Garcia’s response to a constituent pointing out this inconvenient truth was to threaten to sue him.
Kennedy: You have no validity. You won because of voter fraud.You’re illegitimate.
Garcia: llegitimate how, Thomas?
Kennedy: You won because of a ghost candidate funded by [Florida Power & Light].
Garcia: Put him on video saying that.
Kennedy (to Garcia staffer videotaping the exchange): You won because of a ghost candidate funded by FPL.
Garcia: If I sued you tomorrow for that comment, would you be up for that?
Kennedy: Sue me. Sue me. Sue me for defamation.
Garcia: It’s on record. It’s on record. It’s on record. We got a good defamation bill coming up. We got a good defamation bill coming. What’s coming up now, what’s coming up now is the validity of a couple of other things that are going on.
The bill Garcia is referring to here is SB 1220/HB 991, an anti-free speech proposal designed to stop people from criticizing Ron DeSantis and other Republicans. And in particular, it says that you don’t even have to prove you suffered any harm or damages if the defamation suit is about the fact that someone called you a racist, sexist, homophobe, or transphobe.
Yes, really. It is actually that bad. The bill has been condemned far and wide as an attack on free speech — which it absolutely is. In particular, it is intended to scare oppressed people into being afraid to publicly stand up for themselves. Make no mistake, SB 1220 is a fascist bill that is designed to silence critics and further oppress groups of people the state has already historically sought to disenfranchise.
It’s also incredibly unconstitutional, but the Roberts Court has given fascists every reason to think that they will do the bidding of their fellow Republicans, precedent and rule of law be damned.
Once again, for the cheap seats in the back: TRUE STATEMENTS ARE, CATEGORICALLY, NOT DEFAMATORY. But Garcia’s immediate jump to legal threats tells you exactly where she stands: She will use the legal system to silence her critics, even if she has to change the law to do it.
So that’s fun …
I always enjoy mocking this particular version of stupid bullshit. For whatever reason, it seems to be my sweet spot (luv u, Bob Murray, Diamond & Silk, and my buddies Monty and Steve). And while I do appreciate the entertainment, these kinds of lawsuits and threats are actually a huge problem in our legal system.
Because this isn’t just about one or two hilariously batshit cases. Using completely meritless lawsuits to try to shut up people who disagree with you is now a common tactic of politicians, the mega-rich, and other powerful people. From Donald Trump and Devin Nunes to Don Blankenship and Bob Murray, abusing the legal system to stifle free speech has become an everyday.
Lee also showed his ass in this tweet (not literally, thank god). In addition to being just entirely wrong about the definition of defamation, the freedom-loving senator also made it a point to criticize New York Times v. Sullivan, the case that made it harder for public figures to sue people for being mean to them. For years, far-right looney toons like Lee and Donald Trump have been openly saying they want to be able to use the legal system to attack people for criticizing them. Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have already written that they want to overturn Sullivan, because powerful men should be able to do whatever they want.
Now, it looks like Lee is even saying we should change the definition of defamation to include true facts. That is, emphatically, not a thing, but with this Supreme Court, who the fuck knows.
The American legal system is already set up to work for the rich and only the rich. Even when a lawsuit is entirely meritless, the people defending a defamation, libel, or slander lawsuit usually have to pay their own attorneys’ fees — and even if you get a lawsuit dismissed at an early stage, several hundred dollars an hour adds up quickly.
These kinds of lawsuits and threats also pose the danger of simply stifling critical speech before it is uttered. Most of the time, scaring people into silence is the entire point of suing in the first place. Small local news outlets, independent journalists, activists, and everyday citizens alike must be free to criticize public officials and public policy decisions.
Speaking truth to power is exactly the kind of thing the American legal system should protect, not punish.
As the Supreme Court held in Sullivan, the United States has
“a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
Free speech is something Americans should be proud of and fiercely protect. Even people we don’t like have the constitutional right to be assholes. Like Mike Lee!
[ Complaint ]