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Lawyers Using Defamation Lawsuits to Tackle Political Misinformation

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

“Don’t waste your time getting angry at those who did this to me and my daughter,” said Freeman, 65, who along with her daughter Moss, 39, was falsely accused by Giuliani of helping in an imaginary plot to steal the election. 2020 presidential elections.

“We are more than conquerors.”

Less than a decade ago, the two women would have had difficulty finding a lawyer. But Gottlieb, a partner at the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher and former associate counsel in the Obama White House, represented them pro bono. Convinced that viral lies threaten public discourse and democracy, he leads a small but growing group of lawyers using defamation, one of the oldest areas of law, as a weapon against a tide of political misinformation.

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 2016 murder ignited false theories implicating his family. In the Giuliani case, Gottlieb, her law partner Meryl Governski and other members of her team worked with Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that pushes laws and policies to counter what it sees 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 only and most effective strategies to confront these outright falsehoods,” Bassin said.

In recent years, more than a dozen high-profile defamation cases have reached court. Most of them have been filed against right-wing defendants, but the right also files 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 had wrongly described his encounter with a Native American elder as a racially charged confrontation. . 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 payments have been particularly large in defamation cases against the right. In January, attorney Roberta Kaplan defeated former President Donald J. Trump in court when a jury ordered him to pay $83 million for defaming her client, E. Jean Carroll, a writer she sexually abused. Last year, attorneys at the firm Susman Godfrey secured a $787.5 million settlement for Fox News’ Dominion Voting Systems, one of the largest in a defamation case, after Fox aired false theories falsely linking the company with electoral fraud. As of late 2022, the Sandy Hook families smeared by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones won a total of nearly $1.5 billion from juries in Texas and Connecticut, although Jones has yet to pay them anything.

In other cases, injured people, like Freeman and Moss, cannot afford lawyers or have difficulty finding firms willing to pursue defendants who are unable or unwilling to pay large damages, like Giuliani. Gottlieb has tried to fill that void.

“The cost of prosecuting a defamation lawsuit can be enormous, often exceeding a quarter of a million dollars in fees, not to mention the value of attorney time,” said Mark Bankston, an attorney for some of the companies. Sandy Hook families. defamed by Mr. Jones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jones insisted that the First Amendment protected the lies he had spread, like most of the defendants in these cases. But threatened with a lawsuit, he recanted on air and removed all Pizzagate content from Infowars’ website and social media channels. The entire agreement remains confidential.

Shortly after the Pizzagate case, Gottlieb represented Aaron Rich, whose brother Seth Rich, 27, worked for the Democratic National Committee and was shot and killed in a botched robbery in 2016. The case remains unsolved and there are wild theories that Seth Rich was murdered. of Democrats spread from the online swamps to Fox News. Aaron Rich and his parents were involved in the plots, deceived and harassed.

“If this had happened to me or my brother or sister and someone was doing this to my parents, I would be furious,” Gottlieb said. “And no one was helping them.”

In 2018, 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 had sold DNC documents in a plot that resulted in the murder of Seth Rich. Ultimately, Mr. Rich received a confidential settlement that included a retraction of the falsehoods spread by both the men and the newspaper, as well as an apology to the Rich family. Mr. Rich’s parents hired Susman Godfrey and sued Fox News. They got a confidential cash settlement, but no apology.”

The Rich case had gone on for years. At one point, Mr. Gottlieb was named in a wide-ranging defamation lawsuit brought by one of the defendants, which was later dismissed.

The aftermath of the 2020 election generated more calls from potential clients. Gottlieb asked for help from Bassin, the co-founder of Protect Democracy, who had worked with Gottlieb in the Obama White House Counsel’s Office.

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

In his frantic public fight to make his case that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, Giuliani, the former president’s lawyer, had spread the false story that Freeman and his daughter Moss had conspired to falsify the results while counting. votes in Georgia. He falsely claimed that a video showing Ms Freeman handing a small item to her daughter (a ginger mint) showed the two women exchanging USB sticks “as if they were vials of heroin and cocaine”.

Trump echoed the false accusations. In an infamous recorded phone call with Georgia election officials, Trump named Freeman over and over again, calling her a “professional vote scammer” and a “con artist.”

The threats reached the two women. People called them traitors and, using racial slurs, demanded that they be lynched or shot. Others pounded on Ms Freeman’s front door and lurked outside her home, forcing her to hide. Ms. Moss had to leave her job as a poll worker and had difficulty finding work.

Giuliani said he would prove his innocence. But he did not produce court-ordered documents, testify or call witnesses. In the courtroom, he fiddled with his phone and rolled his eyes as the two women described his terror.

In December, a jury in federal court in Washington ordered Giuliani to pay Freeman and 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 for his continued false statements about them.

Meanwhile, Law for Truth, part of Protect Democracy, has filed defamation lawsuits against the creators of the election conspiracy theory film “20,000 Mules”; James O’Keefe, former leader of Project Veritas, a right-wing group known for its covert operations; and Kari Lake, candidate for the United States Senate in Arizona, on behalf of those defamed by the lies Ms. Lake told about the 2020 election.

Despite the activity, lawyers who see themselves as crusaders against lies do not claim victory. Their cases are high-profile and target key spreaders of misinformation, but they acknowledge that they do not make a dent in broader widespread misinformation, such as false claims about Covid vaccines.

“I think these lawsuits can be effective in curbing some of the worst viral misinformation,” said Katie Fallow, senior counsel at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. “But there may be limits to the effectiveness of these demands when there are other incentives, particularly political, to continue spreading them.”

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reports. kitty bennett contributed to the research.