This one is clearly no surprise at all, given that -- as we wrote about just a couple days ago -- Bob Murray and his company Murray Energy were threatening John Oliver with a SLAPP suit if Oliver's satirical report about the coal industry was used to "defame, harass, or otherwise injure Mr. Murray or Murray Energy." Of course, Oliver's report did no such thing... but, alas, Murray has now sued Oliver, HBO, Time Warner... and the writers of the story. The lawsuit was filed in West Virginia state court. In my original post, I suggested it might be filed in Ohio, where Murray Energy is headquartered, but it does also have operations in West Virginia as well. Either way, as with Ohio, West Virginia is a state with no anti-SLAPP law.
Unfortunately, I don't have the full lawsuit. The Daily Beast, which first wrote about the case has chosen -- for whatever reason -- not to post the document, which is pretty lame. However, having watched the John Oliver piece multiple times, I can't see how any of it comes anywhere even remotely near defamatory. It falls into a variety of clearly protected categories, including opinion, satire and rhetorical hyperbole. The idea that there were materially false and defamatory statements that were put forth knowing they were false (or with reckless disregard for the truth) is laughable. There is no way that this lawsuit succeeds -- but, as we've been pointing out -- that's not really the point of most of these kinds of lawsuits. SLAPP lawsuits are designed to create a chill on free speech, by making that speech costly. Obviously, HBO/Time Warner can afford this, and have access to great lawyers, so there's almost no chance that Murray wins the lawsuit, but that's not the point. It will still cost money and lots of time to deal with the lawsuit and that's a hassle.
Murray Energy put out a bizarre statement that does little to support the idea that Murray has an actual case here:
The false and defamatory statements in this broadcast severely and destructively impact Mr. Murray, and all of Murray Energy, particularly our Mines in the State of West Virginia, where we are the largest coal mining employer in the State, as well as coal mining itself, one of the primary foundations of that State's economy.
Murray Energy filed this lawsuit, in part, in order to protect these lives and family livelihoods from the further damage by people who do not want to see coal mined, and want all of those lives destroyed, and will stop at nothing, including lying and fabrications, to accomplish their goal.
This is... laughable if you actually watched the Oliver segment, which is clearly standing up for the workers in these mines, but pointing out how the interests of the bosses -- such as Bob Murray -- are often different than the workers, and highlights a few examples of employees of Murray Energy not appreciating the way Bob Murray ran the company and treated the employees. Similarly, disparaging coal mining itself (which the Oliver report really doesn't even do) is not, in any way, defamatory.
The Daily Beast -- while not posting the complaint -- did get Ken "Popehat" White's opinion on it:
“Overall I’d say it appears frivolous and vexatious,” he said. “Any core of merit is buried in nonsense.”
“It does arguably cite one or two statements (like the bit about earthquakes) that could possibly be defamatory, since they involve fact,” he said. “But for the most part the section describing the purportedly false statements is rambling and semi-coherent, mixing fact with opinion and insult.”
As White notes, the defendants will likely get the case removed to federal court, which should be fairly easy, as there's diversity with most or all of the defendants being in New York, not West Virginia. Of course, it also depends which federal court they remove the case to -- but in some sense, it won't matter at all for anti-SLAPP purposes, since New York (the most likely other destination) has a very weak anti-SLAPP law and it would be tough to apply it here.
So, once again, we can only hope that out of this stupid situation, John Oliver will now become a proponent of much stronger anti-SLAPP laws. If his staff is looking into that issue, I'd be happy to point them to lots and lots of useful experts and resources on anti-SLAPP laws. It's a big issue (that we're living through ourselves) that needs more attention -- the kind of attention that John Oliver is now uniquely positioned to help bring to it.