Last year was a busy year for corporate bullies in the US. It seems nowadays that a corporation or high-ranking businessman can’t even engage in a light spot of environmental destruction, harassment, or treason without some pesky activist or journalist getting in the way. Corporate bullies have increasingly resorted to SLAPPs as a means of clamping down on this growing people power, reflected in movements such as #MeToo. Therefore, 2018 has been a banner year of legal intimidation, aggressive lawsuits, and bully tactics: all in all, a particularly competitive year for the launch of our First Annual SLAPP Awards.
Never heard of a SLAPP before? Learn more on Protect the Protest’s website.
So, without further ado…
Corporate Bully of the Year
Awarded to the corporation that has engaged in the most aggressive efforts to harass and intimidate critics.
1st Place: Chevron
Runner Up: Lake Point Holdings
Chevron’s litigation strategy in 2018 followed the same playbook it has been using for years: bully, harass, intimidate. Despite winning its lawsuit against human rights attorney Steven Donziger (based in part on since-discredited testimony), Chevron has only ramped up its bully tactics in what has been described as the “vengeance stage” of its 25-year long legal effort to avoid accountability for oil-spilling in Ecuador. Despite spending an estimated $2 billion to hire 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to pursue the case, Chevron spent most of 2018 trying to strip away Donziger’s license to practice law and bankrupt him through the recovery of attorney fees. More recently, Chevron has issued aggressive and far-reaching subpoenas to pursue third-party critics of the energy giant. This has included Katie Sullivan, a small business owner who volunteered to help fundraise and organize documents for Ecuadorian victims, who testified that she had to personally spend at least $170,000 in legal fees trying to comply with Chevron’s subpoena as well as endure Chevron’s harassment of her clients.
Coming up close behind Chevron is a new entry: Lake Point Holdings, whose efforts to smear and punish 77-year old environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla has sent it hurtling straight into second place. After Lake Point won its lawsuit against Hurchalla, Lake Point’s lawyers sent the sheriff to seize her only tangible property – including her beloved kayaks and 2004 Toyota. The value of the seized assets was considerably less than the cost of the seizure, but that didn’t stop them inquiring about the value of her wedding ring and demanding a copy of her Last Will and Testament.
Bully Lawyer of the Year
Awarded to the lawyer who has engaged in the most aggressive and abusive intimidation tactics on behalf of their clients.
1st Place: Charles Harder
Runners Up: Michael Cohen and Marc Kasowitz
Perhaps the most prolific SLAPP plaintiff in recent U.S. history is currently sitting comfortably in the White House. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the most notoriously abusive lawyers in the U.S. tend to gravitate to the legal team of Donald J. Trump. As with other White House roles in the Trump administration, however, the role of Trump’s legal attack-dog has proven to be something of a poisoned chalice. Michael Cohen’s SLAPP lawsuit against Buzzfeed appears, in retrospect, as a desperate last attempt by a seasoned legal bully to block accountability for his actions: the man who once told a journalist that “what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting” is cutting an increasingly diminished figure as he prepares for three years in a federal prison.
Likewise, Mark Kasowitz began the year as Trump’s “go-to lawyer” for silencing criticism and dissent, but after telling a journalist to “watch your back, bitch” Kasowitz rapidly fell from grace. It’s relative newcomer Charles Harder who ends the year as Trump’s favorite SLAPP litigator. Harder had long gained notoriety as the face of Peter Thiel’s successful crusade to bankrupt Gawker. Since then, he’s rarely spent a moment of his professional life not engaging in SLAPPs or legal intimidation: he threatened the New York Times on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, threatened New York Magazine on behalf of Roger Ailes, sued TechDirt for ridiculing Shiva Ayyadurai’s claims to be the “inventor of email”, went after Gawker’s sister site Jezebel on behalf of lifestyle guru Greg Scherick, represented Melania Trump in a lawsuit against the Daily Mail, threatened the New York Times for its exposé on the origin of Donald Trump’s wealth, sent cease-and-desist letters to the publisher of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury (as well as Steve Bannon), and went after Omarosa Manigault Newman for her explosive claims about the Trump White House.
Belly Flop Award
Awarded to the most spectacularly useless attempt to silence criticism.
1st Place: Shiva Ayyadurai v. TechDirt
Runner Up: Trump v. Michael Wolff
The Belly Flop Award is reserved each year for SLAPPs or acts of legal intimidation that backfire, belly-flop, or otherwise leave the plaintiff red faced. Perhaps the most obvious example here is Donald Trump’s response to Michael Wolff’s book: after Trump and Charles Harder threatened legal action against Wolff and his publisher Henry Holt and Co, the latter moved forward the date of publication for Fire and Fury “due to unprecedented demand.” It subsequently went on to sell more than 1.75 million copies – which, as the Independent pointed out, exceeds that of Trump’s own Art of the Deal.
Our winning entry for 2018, however, is Shiva Ayyadurai’s lawsuit against TechDirt and its editor, Mike Masnick. As the Daily Beast put it, the “intimidating winning streak” of Charles Harder came to an abrupt end with Ayyadurai’s $15m lawsuit, which was dismissed with prejudice within six months of being filed. Rather than succeed in bankrupting TechDirt (as Harder had managed to do with Gawker), Masnick raised around $250,000 to support TechDirt’s journalism. This has led to the establishment of a new section of the website focused specifically on issues of free speech – and particular on the chilling effect caused by SLAPPs and other acts of legal intimidation. All in all, a fitting response to a SLAPP from the man who originally coined the term “Streisand Effect.”
The Golden Toilet Award
Awarded to the SLAPP that represents the biggest waste of time and money.
1st Place: Resolute Forest Products
Runner Up: Roy Moore
The Golden Toilet Award is reserved for SLAPPs that represent an extraordinary waste of time and money. This year’s prize goes to Resolute Forest Products, which is now entering its seventh year of litigation against Greenpeace offices. Having sued Greenpeace Canada in 2013, Resolute turned its fire on Greenpeace International, Greenpeace Inc., Greenpeace Fund, Inc., and Stand.Earth in 2016 with a $300m racketeering lawsuit. During this time lawyers have clocked up countless hours on legal maneuvers and other attempts to stretch out the scope and longevity of the two lawsuits. Resolute’s legal campaign is most notable for popularizing the use of RICO, an anti-racketeering law designed to tackle mafia activity, against public watchdogs. But while inspiring further attacks against newspapers, anti-racism campaigners, and pipeline activists (see below), Resolute’s attempt to weaponize RICO has now been rejected twice by a California federal court. The company now faces the prospect of having to pay a significant portion of the defendants’ attorneys fees for claims dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Runner up goes to Roy Moore, who spent most of 2018 engaged in a succession of lawsuits that were as pointless as they were abusive: the first against four of his sexual abuse accusers, the second against political action committees that repeated the allegations in campaign ads, and the third against Sacha Baron Cohen. Perhaps not coincidentally, Moore quietly dropped the second of these defamation cases just days after announcing he was suing Cohen. Since Moore’s reputation had long-since been sullied by countless allegations of abuse of teenage girls, It’s safe to say this lawsuit serves very little purpose indeed – except, that is, for giving us an excuse to link to the brilliantly funny interview itself. As the SLAPPer in Chief himself would say: enjoy!
Silliest SLAPP Award
Awarded to the most ridiculous SLAPP lawsuit of the year.
1st Place: ETP v. Greenpeace et al.
Runner up: Bob Murray v. John Oliver and HBO
Truly this year’s most competitive category. The jury had a hard time sifting through the various conspiracy theories, wounded egos, and hyperbolic claims that somehow found their way into legal complaints this year. An early favorite was certainly Bob Murray’s lawsuit against John Oliver and HBO, whose full silliness has been brilliantly captured by TechDirt’s reporting and by the hilarious amicus brief filed by the ACLU of West Virginia (which is really worth reading in full).
The prize ultimately has to go to Energy Transfer Partners, however, whose RICO lawsuit against Greenpeace USA and others – which argues that advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, 350.org, EarthJustice, Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network formed a criminal enterprise to “control, direct and incite acts of terrorism” – scraped the most conspiratorial corners of the alt-right web for content to fill its 187 pages. In his February 14th decision dismissing the lawsuit, the judge stated what was painfully obvious to anyone with a semi-coherent grasp of participatory democracy: “donating to people whose cause you support does not create a RICO enterprise.”