John Oliver talks about the chilling effects of SLAPP suits, calls it “an attempt to bully people into silence”

In the latest episode of late-night American talk show “Last Week Tonight” that aired on Sunday (10 November), its host John Oliver spoke about the controversial SLAPP laws and its chilling effect as it allows privileged individuals to bully others “into silence”.

He started off the episode by talking about American coal tycoon Bob Murray who had recently dropped the lawsuit that he filed against Oliver. Although, he addressed the suit as “a crazy story”, he stressed that it’s worth telling as it “points to a much bigger problem”.

It appears the business tycoon had sued Last Week Tonight over a segment they did in 2017 in which they jokingly addressed him as “a geriatric Dr Evil” – “which we did and he does” – Oliver noted.

In addition, Murray also didn’t like that “we (the show) arranged for a staff member to dress up in a squirrel costume and deliver the message, ‘Eat Shit, Bob’, which Oliver admitted they did as well.

“Murray’s lawsuit against us asked for damages because he claimed that ‘nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack,” Oliver added, noting that it’s odd for Murray to say that given that a mine company that he oversaw collapsed in Utah and resulted in the death of nine people.

On top of seeking for monetary damages, Murray also filed for a gag order in order to prevent the talk show from rebroadcasting the 2017 episode or have it up online, but the episode is very much online to date.

“Obviously, the lawsuit was a bullshit efforts to silence us,” Oliver noted.

Although the case was dismissed by the West Virginia Judge in February 2019, it didn’t stop Murray as he then decided to appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court. However, in a rather surprising twist, one of the judges set to hear the case was Allen Loughry, which interestingly was roasted by Oliver himself in a 2015 episode of the show.

“So we were naturally concerned at this point,” Oliver said.

But thankfully for Oliver, Lounghry, along with three other state Supreme Court justices, were impeached in a scandal for inappropriate spending, forcing Murray to drop the lawsuit as the case has been unattended for years.

In fact, Oliver pointed out that Murray dropped the case about the same time when his coal company, Murray Energy, was reorganised into bankruptcy.

Although the lawsuit was dropped, Oliver noted it racked up over $200,000 in legal fees for his company.

He explained, “These lawsuits were infuriating, took up a lot of time and resources, and resulted in a tripling of our libel insurance premium.”

This then prompted the host to wonder the reason Murray would make them go through all this hassle, in which Oliver stated, “I would argue that because winning the case was never really his (Murray) goal”.

SLAPP laws

For those who are unaware, SLAPP is an acronym that stands for a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”, which basically is a lawsuit that attempts to intimidate and punish critics.

“These are frivolous suits with no legal merits, specifically designed to stifle public debate or dissent. And this happens all the time,” Oliver said.

Besides Murray, President Donald Trump – who happens to be a close friend of the coal tycoon – had “openly called for changes (in SLAPP laws) that would make it easier for them to file” suits.

In fact, President Trump had once sued journalist Tim O’Brien for a whopping $5 billion, solely for reporting that the President’s network is much lower than he claimed, Oliver mentioned.

Although the US President lost the case, he later admitted that he knew he couldn’t win, saying “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about”.

“Trump’s statement there actually get to the key characteristic of SLAPP suits. The whole point there is to put the defendant through a difficult, painful experience,” Oliver said.

He continued, “And even if cases fail in lower courts, as they often do, the plaintiff can find ways to extend them through intensive discovery requests, depositions and appeals that drains the target’s time and resources.”

SLAPP suits are not just used on journalists, but also to silence citizen activists as well, Oliver stated.

The need for more anti-SLAPP laws

Calling SLAPP laws a “scourge”, Oliver highlighted that there are 30 states in the US that have anti-SLAPP laws, which allows defendants to force the plaintiffs to justify their claims made earlier, and if they fail to do so, then the case will not only be dismissed but in some states, the defendants are also awarded attorney fees.

However, he also pointed out that the other 20 states don’t have those laws, including West Virginia and this is where Murray filed the case against Oliver, even though neither of them live there.

In addition, Murray has also filed at least nine lawsuits on journalists and their news organisations between the year 2001 and 2015 for reports that they view as critical.

“Lawsuits like his make people think twice before reporting on his business or pointing things out like the fact that Bob Murray’s general facial expression answers the question, ‘What would it look like is an egg was mentally undressing you?” Oliver joked.

He added, “And I would argue that some of Murray’s suits clearly been attempts to bully people into silence.”

Separately, the Oliver also revealed in his show that Murray once sued a couple for conducting a small protest in 2012 outside of Murray Energy Ohio headquarters. The protest only saw about 20 people gathering at the building but the business mogul still took the extreme step to not only sue the couple, but also a local newspaper who covered the protest.

“Both the couple and the newspaper beat Murray’s claims for defamation but he tied the both on appeals for years, causing the newspaper’s defence in hundreds and thousands of dollars,” Oliver disclosed.

In fact, the judge wrote in his decision that “Murray’s suit shows that ‘Ohio should adopt an anti-SLAP statute”.

This is because the newspaper had removed all articles it had written about Murray on its site, which the judge expressed “an example of the chilling effect this has”.

As such, Oliver expressed that “we badly need effective anti-SLAPP laws nationwide to deter powerful people like Bob Murray from using the cause to shut down people’s legitimate dissent.

Singapore’s PM Lee named as press freedom predator for using SLAPP

Separately, in 2016, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published names of 35 presidents, politicians, religious leaders, militias and criminal organisations that have censored, imprisoned, tortured or murdered journalists.

Addressing them as press freedom predators, RSF stated that some of these individuals have been preying on the media for years, some for decades.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was also listed as one of the predator by RSF, citing that his strategies in stifling media is to use SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Which consists of bringing defamation suits or other legal actions against isolated journalists and bloggers who cannot easily defend themselves against political powerful or wealthy plaintiffs, with the aim of deterring them and their colleagues from contributing to the public debate.

Going no higher than 135th, Singapore currently ranks 154th in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

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