Recently, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald reported that Idaho billionaire and CEO of Melaleuca, Inc., Frank VanderSloot, has been engaged in a systematic campaign to silence journalists and bloggers from publishing stories about his political views and business practices. VanderSloot and Melaleuca have targeted national news organizations and small town bloggers alike by issuing bogus legal threats alleging defamation and copyright infringement in an attempt to keep legitimate newsworthy information from being released to the public.
This aggressive tactic not only chills otherwise protected free speech, but in many states, also risks triggering liability under “anti-SLAPP” statutes. Anti-SLAPP laws prevent strategic defamation lawsuits—frequently filed by plaintiffs with deep pockets—that have little to no chance of winning, yet are aimed at pressuring the target into settling for fear of expensive litigation.
Last month, after VanderSloot became a finance co-chair on leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s election campaign, Melaleuca’s attorneys sent threatening letters to Mother Jones and Forbes, forcing them to temporarily take down articles exploring VanderSloot’s public position on gay rights and Melaleuca’s business practices. It turns out that this practice is nothing new for Vandersloot: he targeted local political blogs in Idaho with similar tactics for years on a local level.
At the beginning of February, a blogger for The Idaho Agenda was forced to take down a post after receiving a defamation suit threat from Melaleuca’s in house counsel. The author indicated that he took it down because he feared the expensive litigation battle but insisted that “the facts included in the post are a matter of public record found elsewhere, including the internet, periodicals and newspapers.”
Back in 2007, Melaleuca pressured the politics blog 43rdStateBlues to take down a critical post written by a pseudonymous blogger “TomPaine.” Another blogger on 43rdStateBlues, “d2”, posted the lawyer’s letter explaining to readers why the original was taken down. Incredibly, Melaleuca’s lawyers then obtained a retroactive copyright certificate on the threat letter and demanded the hosting provider take down the post as well. Even after they complied with the letter, Melaleuca sued TomPaine for copyright infringement then subpoenaed TomPaine’s and d2’s identities.
You can read more of the details of these cases and Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of how all of these posts were perfectly protected speech here.
Now, VanderSloot is at it again. He and his company's lawyers have targeted local Idaho independent journalist Jody May-Chang over posts that are four years old. Melaleuca’s lawyers have challenged a series of articles written by May-Chang, most notably this one, in which she describes VanderSloot’s funding of the billboard campaign and opines that he is “anti-gay.” Melaleuca first sent a letter to May-Chang in 2008, asking not only to correct the post but to take down the stock photograph of VanderSloot that was on his personal website (a common practice among journalists). The photo was taken down but the posts stayed up at a new URL. After re-discovering the post last month, they sent another letter to May-Chang repeated their demands from 2007, but May-Chang has held her ground and kept the post up despite the threat of costly litigation.
Unfortunately, VanderSloot’s strategy is not new and demonstrates the speech-chilling effect options available to those with ready access to aggressive lawyers. Another billionaire, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, attempted to use this tactic against the alt-weekly Washington City Paper last year by suing the publication for libel over a well-sourced article making fun of his business practices. Luckily, Washington City Paper decided to fight the suit and Snyder dropped it after being confronted with potential liability under DC’s new anti-SLAPP statute.
While Idaho does not have an anti-SLAPP law to protect May-Chang, after Greenwald’s report two weeks ago, other news organizations have finally felt free to report on this series of incidents and the inevitable Streisand Effect has taken hold. Rachel Maddow aired a five minute segment on the controversy on her MSNBC show. And Techdirt’s Mike Masnick said this situation shows the need for a strong federal anti-SLAAP statute. Thankfully, while VanderSloot issued a lengthy response the allegations, he or his company’s lawyers have not issued any new legal threats since Greenwald published his investigation.
But as National Journal’s Chris Frates suggests, given that VanderSloot is a co-chair on a leading presidential campaign, Mitt Romney should have to answer to questions about his official surrogate's attempts to circumvent the First Amendment. Frates writes:
And near as I can tell, Romney has yet to answer questions regarding his supporter's tactics. Did he know of VanderSloot's reported pattern of threatening journalists critical of his interests? Does Romney agree with that response? And does Romney stand by VanderSloot? I put those, and other, questions to a campaign spokeswoman but did not get a response.
And while we’re at it, Mitt Romney—along with President Obama—should be asked their position on a federal anti-SLAAP statute. This type of harassment has no place in a country that prides itself on honest public discourse and the free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The Public Participation Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to passing federal anti-SLAPP regulation, has highlighted this case as well, and encourages those concerned to petition their congress member to support such legislation by going here.