If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bully.
Saying that, however, could have some pretty costly consequences if the Cagle family of Pickens County, Georgia has its way.
The Cagles have filed a suit against Rayven Goolsby, a grocery clerk, for criticizing them on social media for their presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and other statements they made on Facebook about various political and social concerns.
Goolsby’s remarks focused on Kathryn and Thelma Cagle for their alleged “central roles” in organizing busloads of attendees through the “Women for America First” tour; they also touched on William Cagle, husband of Thelma and father to Kathryn, calling him a homophobic “loser.”
Goolsby’s remarks, made in various community Facebook groups, were in reference to William Cagle musing on Facebook when the county was mulling separate bathrooms for transgender people that he did “not appreciate his tax dollars being spent on supporting indecency and a couple of FREAKS that can’t make up their mind where to take a leak.”
(Goolsby’s lawyer Andrew) Fleischman said the defamation suit against Goolsby is a way of making it expensive to criticize the Cagles — “even if the criticism is true.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid that criticizing an important person in our community could cost us thousands of dollars,” Fleischman told The Washington Post. He argued that Goolsby has truth and public interest on her side.
One of the primary things we emphasize in journalism is that if you present information that is factually accurate, you are safe from harm when it comes to libel suits and other claims of defamation. What we really mean is that you’re not going to lose a suit if you write that your governor stole $6 million from the state to build a replica of Graceland in his backyard, if you can prove that this actually happened.
That said, getting sued itself can be a painful process that will costs you time and money, while subjecting you to a great deal of anxiety and aggravation. The only real saving grace of being sued as a staff reporter is that you are working for an organization that has lawyers and managers who will take on the brunt of the costs and work with you.
As an individual operating on a social media platform, you take on the role of “publisher” without having all those helping hands and financial backstops to make life a little less terrible. That said, what we have here is pretty clearly a case of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or a SLAPP case, as anti-slapp.org explains:
These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.
SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.
SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or “correct” statements.
We’ve talked about SLAPPs before on the blog, including the one that comedian John Oliver faced involving a coal magnate and a giant talking squirrel. To prevent this kind of thing, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-SLAPP laws, which can force plaintiffs to prove they’re not using the courts as a cudgel to shut people up.
According to anti-SLAPP.org, Georgia actually has a pretty good anti-SLAPP law on its books, which states that if a person is found to have engaged in a SLAPP suit, the case will be dismissed and that person is on the hook for legal fees and costs incurred by the person they “SLAPPed.”
In other words, if you have a great deal of money and plan to use it to sue someone into silence, it might end up costing you some additional cash in a way you hadn’t planned on.