Paul Levy has tracked down yet another abuse of the court system to illegitimately erase factual news articles from the internet. The person behind the bogusly-obtained court order is Megan Welter, who achieved national fame and national infamy within the space of a few days back in 2013.
The case that we just entered involves Megan Welter, a young woman who achieved a degree of publicity success in the summer of 2013 with the story of how an Iraq war veteran had become a cheerleader for the Arizona Cardinals football team. A few days later, she learned how fickle the media can be: it got its hands on a less flattering situation: in a fit of jealous rage at her boyfriend’s communication with one of his exes, Welter called the police claiming that he was abusing her physically. But when the police arrived, the boyfriend persuaded them, through cellphone video as well as Welter’s own on-the-scene admissions, that it was Welter herself who was the assailant. The upshot was that Welter was arrested and charged, and that story, based in part on the boyfriend’s statements to the police, received national coverage in the print and broadcast media, as well as on various sports-related blogs and web sites. Many of these sites carried bodycam video from the responding police, plus the cell phone video that the boyfriend provided to the police; a few even linked to a detailed police report describing Welter’s own self-incriminating statements.
Despite it being almost two years past the statute of limitations, Welter engaged the services of Kelly/Warner LLC to file a defamation lawsuit. The complaint [PDF] contains nothing but conclusory claims about the supposed libel. (Basically, "false statements were made and were false.") The complaint was accompanied by a proposed injunction, which included a list [PDF] of 107 URLs --including YouTube videos and a variety of other websites -- Welter wanted delisted. But Welter still needed somebody to trigger this judicially-abusive chain of events. She, along with her lawyer, leaned on the ex-boyfriend.
The proposed stipulation included a signature line for Ryan McMahon, Welter’s boyfriend on the day of the controversial incident, and a paragraph in which McMahon purported to “admit” that the statements about Welter attributed to him in the various news stories were false.
McMahon signed the form, possibly after being misled by Welter's lawyer. (Levy notes her legal rep said he had an email chain showing McMahon's voluntary and knowing participation in the lawsuit, but refused to turn it over to Levy.) Welter's lawyer used this single signature to attempt to nuke 107 pieces of content not created by McMahon. Obviously, as Levy points out, the lawsuit wasn't filed to get her ex-boyfriend to shut up. It was filed to whitewash the unpleasant parts of her recent history.
The way to accomplish this was through a tricky manipulation of the well-established principle that injunctive relief extends to the “agents” of an enjoined defendant and, indeed, to others who connive with the defendant to propagate his wrongdoing. The stipulated injunction included several prohibitions of publication by “defendant’s” agents — in context, the “defendant” was plainly McMahon – but it defined the term “agents” as including anybody whose publication was “enabling” the publication of the 98 online articles based in part on McMahon's contemporaneous statements, as well as nine YouTube videos (most of which were copies of TV stories) identified in the complaint. Moreover, McMahon’s admission included the proposition that “all or substantially all of the statements made in URL’s are false and defamatory.” And on that basis, all of the defendants responsible for those online articles, as well as the “agents” as broadly defined, were commanded to take them down. [...] And, just in case they did not comply with these orders, the order called for Google and other search engines to take the URL’s identified in the order out of its database so that the content would not be searchable (here, again, the basic element of the fraudulent Richart Ruddie orders).
Even though numerous websites (including ABC News, CBS News, Sports Illustrated, and USA Today) were claimed to have published defamatory material, not a single one was listed directly as a defendant. The filing insisted all of these well-known sites -- most of them carrying writer bylines -- are only referred to as "unidentifiable" Does.
This internet-nuking order [PDF] should never have made it past a judge. But it did. Now Levy has filed a motion to vacate [PDF] on behalf of Avvo, one of the 98 sites listed in the attachment to the proposed order. It points out several flaws in the complaint and injunction, the first of which is the obvious statute of limitations violation. Beyond that, the complaint has numerous fatal flaws, including its failure to show how statements made by her ex-boyfriend to the police are somehow false now that she wants them scrubbed from the internet.
It appears Judge Patricia Starr isn't bothered by the plaintiff's questionable legal tactics. The only thing she finds irritating is this case's potential to add to her workload.
Since we filed the papers late yesterday, I received a recording of the telephonic hearing. That recording makes Judge Starr look even worse. The only reason she called the hearing, she said, was that she was worried that the terms of the stipulation could keep the case on her docket longer than it had to be; she wanted to know whether that problem could be fixed. And she wanted assurance that entry of the order would be the end of the case. She evinced no concern about the free speech rights of the absent defendants.
Worse, this free speech-ignoring injunction-granting came after hearing from the single named defendant, who contradicted the claims made in the lawsuit.
McMahon was on the telephone, and he said, toward the end of the very short hearing, “Even though she did these things, I really believe that everybody deserves a fresh start. And if it ever happened to me, I would want someone to do this for myself. So I am okay with that. I guess that I hope she learns her lesson, and she takes care of it and doesn't do it again.” So this state court judge had no compunction about issuing a sweeping injunction against nearly a hundred absent defendants even though the individual defendant, appearing without counsel before her, contradicted the “admission” in the stipulation that the URL’s were entirely or mostly false by saying, “she did these things.”
The court system can be abused by disingenuous plaintiffs seeking to erase their web pasts, but it shouldn't be encouraged by judges who suspect something is off, but are more interested in clearing their dockets.