We've been covering just how silly coal boss Bob Murray's SLAPP lawsuit against John Oliver is, and things keep getting sillier. Late last week, Murray's lawyers dug themselves in even deeper, asking for a gag order on Oliver and HBO (first reported by Betsy Woodruff at the Daily Beast). Specifically, they filed for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to gag Oliver. They even admit that it's a "gag order" on Oliver and HBO. This kind of prior restraint is not supposed to be allowed under the First Amendment, but Murray's lawyers already have shown some fairly wacky legal theories, so it doesn't seem likely that "what the law says" is going to stop them from asking for ridiculous things.
The document specifically requests that the defendants in the case be barred from re-broadcasting Oliver's hilarious report (which already has 6.6 million views and counting) and also that he be stopped from "publicly discussing the substance of this litigation." Of course, Oliver himself has already said on his show that, on the advice of HBO's lawyers, he won't be discussing the case until it's over, so this request is even more bizarre. But it's also silly legally. The First Amendment doesn't allow for a gag order to prevent someone from discussing a case. That's blatant prior restraint, and in the immortal words of Walter Sobchak, "the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint."
The motion, like the original lawsuit, is highly theatrical, but has little relation to the actual law. It's basically a litany of complaints about how people are mocking Bob Murray for suing Oliver.
Plaintiffs are quickly learning firsthand about the phenomenon that Time and Fortune magazines have dubbed the "John Oliver Effect." When Plaintiffs filed their Complaint, they did not appreciate the extent of the destructive aftermath that Defendants" malicious and false broadcast would cause. Mr. Murray and his employees and family have been inundated with an onslaught of threats, harassment, and intimidation by people that are simply following Defendants' lead as they view and re-view the Defamatory Statements. Murray Energy's website has been overrun with messages of "Eat Shit, Bob." Employees who once enjoyed coming to work now spend their days receiving countless phone calls and e-mails telling them they are "a worthless piece of shit," and worse. Mr. Murray's family members have even received death threats. None of this would have occurred but for Defendants' broadcast of the Defamatory Statements. Worse yet, Defendants knew that fans of the show would react in this manner. Continued publication and public access to the Defamatory Statements will only enlist additional people to Defendants' perverse "call to action," with additional grave consequences.
Moreover, the John Oliver Effect has already spilled over to directly affect this litigation: numerous media outlets are commenting on their views of this action in a biased fashion that often times provides viewers with access to the entire June 18 broadcast. Additionally, the broadcast's YouTube video has been viewed 1.9 million times more since the Complaint was filed. The pervasiveness of the Defamatory Statements is unfairly tilting public opinion in Defendants' favor so much so that third parties have specifically directed threats and harassment at Plaintiffs' counsel regarding the perceived merits of Plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs' ability to assemble a fair and impartial jury diminishes every day that the Defamatory Statements are available to prejudice the individuals that might be called upon to serve justice in this matter.
Basically, this request for a gag order boils down to: "OMG, people are making fun of our lawsuit and the lawyers writing this, so please make them stop." Perhaps the reason people are making fun of you is because the lawsuit is a bad one, guys. And that's all protected free speech under this great American thing we have called the First Amendment of the Constitution. You guys are the lawyers -- you're supposed to know that stuff.
The complaint goes on to list out some excerpts from some phone calls to Murray's companies that were clearly people responding to the Oliver piece and the lawsuit. I'm sure it's no fun at all to be on the receiving end of those calls -- but, again, that's not against the law. Hell, some of the phone calls don't sound particularly harassing: "Others demanded that Plaintiffs "stop with their bullshit lawsuits" or asked "Why are you suing John Oliver?" Who knew that merely asking why are you suing someone would be held up as evidence of harassment? Who knew that Bob Murray was such a snowflake? The report also highlights a bunch of emails all saying "eat shit Bob" in some form or another (a statement that comes directly from the Oliver broadcast):
Of course, if this is really so bothersome, why doesn't Murry just set up a filter to route all emails with "eat shit" in them to trash? Seems like a pretty easy solution.
There's more in the filing in which they try to tap dance around the First Amendment claims by saying that there's no harm in censoring speech and putting a gag order on Oliver/HBO. This goes against basically all historical precedent noting that prior restraint on speech is, by itself, a form of harm. But Murray's lawyers don't want to talk about that. They pull out a classic anti-First Amendment trope, that because there are a few, very narrowly tailored exceptions to the First Amendment, their own requested exception surely must be okay:
Defendants doubtless will resist an injunction using words such as "First Amendment" and "free speech." But these rights do not give anyone the right to say anything, anywhere, to anyone. Indeed, our Nation's founding founders and The Supreme Court of the United States have repeatedly noted that false and defamatory statements deserve no Constitutional protection.
Sure. The courts have noted that defamation isn't protected by the First Amendment, but this gag order request is not asking for a blocking of just defamatory statements (hell, they barely identify any potentially defamatory statements amidst all the hand waving). They're literally asking for a gag order on discussing the case itself. The case itself is not defamatory. You can't silence a defendant from talking about the fact that you stupidly sued him. That's not what the Supreme Court is saying. Indeed, the two citations that Murray's lawyers point to from the Supreme Court notably do not support injunctions against speech. They merely note that defamation is not protected speech. But plenty of other cases explicitly make it clear that injunctions on speech should not be granted because of prior restraint. In Near v. Minnesota, the court said that a law granting injunctions on defamation was unconstitutional. In Bantam Books v. Sullivan the court famously said that "[a]ny system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity."
Murray's lawyers do nothing to counter this fairly set-in-stone precedents. They just go with the "well, there are exceptions, therefore gag order."
They also play up -- once again -- the fact that Murray has health problems, insisting that this weighs in favor of granting an injunction. Amazingly, they point to a case that said an injunction could be issued against a landlord for trying to bring in an exterminator, because it might impact a tenant's pulmonary fibrosis, as a reason to grant this injunction against speech. Really.
And indeed, pulmonary fibrosis has been specifically recognized to be an ailment that can warrant injunctive relief, including under less aggravating circumstances than those found here. See 2 Perlman Drive, LLC v. Stevens 2017 N.Y. Slip. Op. 50173(U), (N.Y. Civ. Ct. Feb 9, 2017) (enjoining landlord from employment of chemical exterminators in apartment tenanted by sufferer from pulmonary fibrosis).
Yes, that's Bob Murray's lawyers stating that people mocking Bob Murray is a more aggravating circumstance than someone getting sprayed with harmful chemicals. That takes some level of chutzpah on the part of his lawyers.
They also pull out another old trope, insisting that all this mocking press coverage might influence a jury, so surely a gag order is appropriate. Except, of course, this isn't the UK where there are superinjunctions or whatnot. The press is allowed to talk about stuff, and they're even allowed to give their opinion on things. And if that opinion includes mocking the bad decisions of Bob Murray, that too is protected speech. Amusingly, among the complaints about those biased press reports, Murray's lawyers call out Ken "Popehat" White's opinions of the lawsuit in the Daily Beast (without naming Ken):
The Daily Beast ran an article on June 22, 2017, titled "Republican Coal King Sues HBO over John Oliver's Show," in which it features a statement by an attorney describing this lawsuit as "frivolous and vexatious."
Yes, and so? That's a protected opinion backed up with lots of experience.
Either way, this request will now be viewed by a federal judge, rather than a local West Virginia court. Because, just as we (and basically everyone else) predicted, HBO has removed the case to federal court. Murray's lawyers may try to get the case sent back to the local court, but that's unlikely to work. When you have defendants in other states (and even some of the plaintiffs in other states) and a cause of action over $75k, then you have what's known as diversity, and the case should rightfully be kicked up to federal court. In fact, the Notice of Removal argues that there really isn't even any West Virginia parties in the lawsuit at all, since the only "real" plaintiffs are Bob Murray and Murray Energy -- both of which are from Ohio. Yes, the lawsuit lists a bunch of West Virginia subsidiaries of Murray Energy, but Oliver never mentioned any of them at all, so there's no legitimate claim any of them can make for defamation. Indeed, the filing argues they were just thrown into the case to pretend that it belonged in West Virginia local court.
I get the feeling we've still got plenty of future filings to look forward to in this SLAPP suit (again, West Virginia, tragically, has no anti-SLAPP law). Wouldn't it be nice if we finally got a federal anti-SLAPP law to deal with these kinds of suits?