Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich is running for County Executive with public financing and plans to take on developers. Kim R. Ford is challenging fourteen-term Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton for her seat. We talk to both of them about their campaigns and look at the biggest political news of the week.
It’s “your turn” to share your views on everything from football owner Dan Snyder suing the Washington City Paper to the legal battles over health care reform to the rapidly evolving political unrest in Egypt.
- Heidi Li Feldman Professor of Law and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWashington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, as we said, filed suit late yesterday against the Washington City Paper and its parent company, Atalaya Capital Management, in New York State Court. He's seeking $2 million in general damages plus unspecified punitive damages and court costs. Snyder alleges in the suit that the City Paper libeled and defamed him in a series of articles dating to 2009. But does he have a cases? Joining us to help us make up own minds is Heidi Li Feldman, a professor law and associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. Heidi Li Feldman, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. HEIDI LI FELDMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWhat does Dan Snyder hope to accomplish by filing this lawsuit? Does he have a strong case?
FELDMANWell, I can't read Dan Snyder's mind, but he doesn't have a very strong case so I think he does intend to cost the City Paper and its parent company, as much money as he can. And I think that explains why he filed this suit in New York rather than either where the parent company or the paper itself is located. And that's already the beginning of rationing up expenses.
NNAMDIBecause it would cost more in New York than anyplace else?
FELDMANBecause -- no. Anytime you hire your lawyers and you have to have them travel -- City Paper's not going to hire an attorney in Albany to -- I mean, they may hire a local counsel, but the person who's going to deal with their strategy is going to be a Washington-based attorney. In fact, they mention on their site their counsel they've already referred the matter to. And so you pay lawyers by the hour. Every hour it takes them to get to Albany, you're paying. So it's the greatest indication of -- that you're already taxing the person you're suing before you're even getting to anything on the merits.
NNAMDIHow costly could a suit like this be for the Washington City Paper?
FELDMANWell, I mean...
NNAMDIAre you there?
FELDMANYes, I'm sorry. I just was pausing to think.
FELDMANThe -- if you -- if the...
NNAMDIThat many zeroes, huh? But go ahead.
FELDMANExactly. You got it, exactly. I was -- I mean, if the suit goes the way I think it will, it will cost them very little. Let's say under $50,000, which is little in terms of lawsuits.
NNAMDIBut for creative loafing might be more. Here's Dave Zirin.
MR. DAVE ZIRINYeah. Just quick question for you, Heidi. Thanks so much for being on the show. Would the Washington City paper be able to countersue for damages if this is deemed to be a frivolous lawsuit? What protections does any of us have from someone with a billion dollars taking us to court and cleaning us out just on legal costs?
FELDMANWell, you just actually said what the protection is, which is to claim that a suit -- to make a motion that suit is frivolous. Unfortunately, that standard, it's very hard to prove. So the standard for frivolity is very high, if you will. And so really, most people are in the position to be sued. There are two things that an organization like the City Paper has going for it, one -- in terms of protecting itself. It's not so much countersuing for damages, as A, going for the quick dismissal of the suit -- and I assume that the City Paper has liability insurance.
FELDMANI don't -- I mean, most -- even, you know, small newspapers have that, which means that their insurer is picking up some of this. I mean, that's a form of saving up. So if you know you're in a risky business, i.e. you write a lot about a lot of different people and some of them might get mad and sue you, you might have an insurance policy to help you cover your costs.
NNAMDIThe court is gonna have to tackle the issue of whether Dan Snyder is a public figure or not. Doesn't owning a pro football team automatically make you a public figure?
FELDMANI wouldn't go quite so far as to say automatically, but it comes pretty darn close. The reason this makes a difference is because the rules are different in libel action when the plaintiff is a public figure suing a media outlet. And, I mean, let's assume -- public figures -- at the heart of the idea of what a public figure is, is a person who puts themselves in the cultural, social or political limelight. It is possible, I guess, that a pro football team owner could own a team and keep a very low profile or it could be a consortium of people.
FELDMANAnd they wouldn't -- and not every member of the consortium would be a public figure, but clearly that's not the case with Dan Snyder.
FELDMANHe's someone who's totally used his position as a pro football owner to, if you will, amplify...
ZIRINHe does TV commercials. He does TV commercials.
FELDMANNo. I mean, I don't -- I mean, and the significance of this is, and I'm sure Dave knows this, that it means that he has to show that not only is there substantial falsehood in anything that was written about him, but that those falsehoods are there because the paper acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
FELDMANOr actually just lied. But usually people go for reckless disregard and that's a really tough standard to meet.
NNAMDIHow about the relationship between reckless disregard or lying and this? Dan Snyder has had a pretty contentious relationship with the media. Can that factor into lawsuits like this?
FELDMANOnly indirectly. And for the City Paper's sake, I hope that it doesn't because it would only factor in if you go to trial. And at trial, one of the things he's complaining about is something that someone at the City Paper wrote about him with regard to being -- having a contentious relation with the media. So if someone says, you've been a real -- you know, writes he's been a, you know, perpetual pain in you know what...
FELDMAN...to every reporter in town, and he's suing over that statement...
NNAMDIOkay. But here's the other thing that I want to get to before we go because that's what a lot of people have been calling about. The Paper's cover story with the headline, "The Cranky Redskins' Fans Guide to Dan Snyder," had an altered photo of the owner with horns and a beard drawn in pen. In the complaint letter he filed before the suit, Snyder called that illustration anti-Semitic. He is Jewish. How could that complaint enter a libel suit?
FELDMANWell, you can write down anything you want. That the court will strike right away. It can't be -- if anything, an expression of any type of bigotry -- this is assuming that this was an expression of bigotry -- is an opinion, not a fact. You can't be sued for statements of fact. You could argue it's in poor taste or juvenile, or, you know, as many people did with the cover of Obamas that satirized them in the New Yorker.
FELDMANBut just as the Obamas would have had no lawsuit there, because the cover might have been tacky, if you think that about such a cover here or you think that it's bigoted, it's not a matter of fact. This is just to get more newspaper coverage for the lawsuit.
NNAMDIAnd Dave Zirin, you read all of those pieces by Dave McKenna. So far, I haven't seen anything challenging the accuracy of any of the facts in that material. Is there anything that you saw that might be considered not factual?
ZIRINNot a single thing. And the other thing that's very striking about this A to Z guide is that it's not a collection of opinions. It's not saying that this move was bad or that move was bad, it was just a history of factual things that Dan Snyder has done which have been discussed for years, which have gotten in the collective craw of the Redskins' faithful.
FELDMANWell, I mean, to just be a little fair to the plaintiff here, even if he wouldn't extend that courtesy to the defendant, he does claim, I think correctly, that at least the A to Z guide implies that he's used Agent Orange on his property, where it's actually on federal lands, and the introduction does use a colloquialism which could be potentially read that way. And there are a couple of other things like that. So there...
ZIRINThat is true about the introduction. That is true about the introduction. He does get a tad colorful.
FELDMANYou know, and again, I don't think there's anything there that will really support a suit, but I did notice that on the Internet, the news outlets that have picked up the story are pointing to those things.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Heidi Li Feldman is a professor of law and professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. Thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today is Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman has been on the phones. Dave Zirin, always a pleasure.
ZIRINMy privilege, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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