How ‘Frivolous’ Lawsuits Threaten Media, Including Snopes

A funny John Oliver segment about SLAPP suits imparts serious truths and some helpful insight to better understand the lawsuit threatening Snopes.

  • Published 22 November 2019

Three days after “Last Week Tonight” aired a 2017 segment critical of Robert E. Murray, CEO of the billion-dollar Murray Energy Corporation, Murray sued for defamation. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but Murray appealed, and the process dragged on for over two years until Murray finally dropped his lawsuit.

(It’s a scenario we at Snopes find all too familiar. More on that later.)

With the case finally resolved, in November 2019 host John Oliver explained in a new segment the pernicious and chilling effect of such lawsuits — known as SLAPP suits — in intimidating news outlets out of engaging in critical reporting on public figures and businesses:

As Vulture wrote of the latter segment:

After calling the lawsuit “a bullshit effort to silence us,” Oliver switched his focus to the real issue that was highlighted during the long battle against Murray — a battle that Murray knew he could never win. “We did wonder: What was the point of him putting us through all of this in the first place? I would argue it’s because winning the case was never really his goal, and that brings us to the larger issue that we’re gonna talk about tonight: SLAPP suits,” Oliver said. “SLAPP is an acronym that stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These are frivolous suits with no legal merit specifically designed to stifle public debate or dissent. And these happen all the time.

Frivolous or not, these suits have serious effects.

As Oliver pointed out, they had to spend more than $200,000 in legal fees (partly covered by insurance) fending off Murray’s lawsuit.

Snopes recently faced SLAPP claims lodged against us by Proper Media and its principal owners, Drew Schoentrup and Chris Richmond (who also jointly own the Salon.com and TV Tropes websites). Although we were successful in using California’s anti-SLAPP statute to get those claims dismissed relatively quickly, we spent more than $300,000 in that effort — and we will be expending even more in legal fees trying to compel our insurance carrier to cover those costs, as well as dealing with the inevitable appeal of the dismissal.

By the grace of generous reader contributions, we have managed to raise enough funds to cover our continuous operating expenses and legal fees so far.

But as we join our families at the Thanksgiving table this year, we will, unfortunately, have to explain that, yes, the lawsuit is ongoing, and no, we don’t know when it will all end.

Whenever and however it does end, we know the true cost of this fight is our most valuable (and non-refundable) resource: time.

Thanks for spending some of yours with Snopes this year, and for all of your continued support.

If you want to make a contribution to Snopes below, we will be ever grateful.

Truthfully yours,
Team Snopes

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