SLAPP Happy Dog-Shooter
Because Siouxsie has always been a dog lover (not like that, eww), and a lover of the First Amendment, she was inspired to write this post.
This is the tale of Comins v. VanVoorhis.
The defendant, Mr. VanVoorhis, publishes a WordPress.com blog called Public Intellectual. He is being sued by Christopher Comins because of a blog post.
For those who do not know, Mr. Comins is a well-to-do Orlando developer who was caught on video acting like a douchebag — Mr. Comins shot two Siberian huskies at point-blank range, multiple times, and for no good reason.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Comins, an Irish tourist videotaped the entire incident. The video went viral. And the media had a field day with it.
According to reports, Mr. Comins believed the dogs were a pair of wolves poised to attack nearby cattle. [source] This excuse is bullshit. For one, the woman videotaping the shooting (and standing farther away) knew that the animals were dogs (she says so at .37 on the video). But even worse, wolves are a protected, endangered species; you can’t just shoot them whenever you feel like it. In any event, when the shooting was done, Mr. Comins had shot the dogs a total of seven times. Raley took four hits; Hoochie took three. Both dogs were severely injured. Hoochie lost an eye. But both miraculously survived. [source]
Below is the video that sparked worldwide outrage. It is difficult to watch. You can hear the videographer express her horror at what she is witnessing.
The video and the possibility that Mr. Comins might escape being charged led to intense media coverage and public outcry. After watching the video, Mr. VanVoorhis apparently felt compelled to join in the fray. He wrote a highly-critical and disapproving blog post, and embedded the video of incident. The post also noted what other news reports had — that Mr. Comins had pled “no contest” two years earlier for pointing a gun’s laser site at a twelve-year-old boy. [source][source]
Mr. Comins is now facing two counts of third-degree felony animal-cruelty charges for his conduct. [source] Mr. Comins, for whatever reason, blames everyone else for his current predicament. He is suing Chris Butler, the owner of the dogs. And instead of accepting responsibility, he is also bullying suing Mr. VanVoorhis for defamation.
Even though mainstream media reported negatively on the shooting, and even though thousands of people organized to sign a petition to ensure that Mr. Comins would be prosecuted, Mr. Comins singled out Mr. VanVoorhis to sue for defamation. As noted at Simple Justice, “[g]iven the scope and breadth of the attacks on Comins for his dog-shooting, only one rational explanation surfaces to explain why he picked VanVoorhis to sue for defamation. He’s the easiest target.” This is just how Mr. Comins rolls. He likes to pick on children, defenseless animals, and now innocent bloggers.
The lawsuit against Mr. VanVoorhis has no merit; it was brought only to muzzle others from speaking out about the merciless dog-shooting and to punish Mr. VanVoorhis for his critical post.
And that is it why the lawsuit is a SLAPP suit of the worst kind. For those not familiar with a SLAPP suit (or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation):
[It] is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
The plaintiff does not normally expect to win the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate. [source]
SLAPP suits are bad for everyone. As the Public Participation Project states, “[t]hese meritless lawsuits clog the courts, waste resources and contribute to a general culture of litigousness. Instead of answering speech with speech, SLAPP filers answer speech with subpoenas and spurious claims.” [source] And most scary, they are one of most dangerous threats to First Amendment rights: “SLAPPs chip away at the will and ability to speak out, person by person, group by group, issue by issue.” [source]
The lawsuit against VanVoorhis illustrates why it is so important that federal anti-SLAPP legislation be enacted. Such legislation would help to prevent lawsuits like this and possibly provide people who are wrongfully sued with a means to recover their damages.
Conveniently, there is a federal anti-SLAPP bill currently sitting in committee in Congress. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) introduced this bill three months ago. This bill, HR 4364, the “Citizen Participation Act of 2009,” would provide protection for bloggers and others against SLAPP suits. As law professor Eric Goldman explains on his Technology & Marketing Law Blog:
[D]efendants can turn the tables on the plaintiffs, file an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the litigation, and thereby ask the court to end the lawsuit much more quickly than under traditional rules. Second, anti-SLAPP laws allow successful defendants to be awarded their legal defense costs.
Everyone should want this legislation to pass — tort reformers, bloggers, readers of blogs, democrats, republicans. No one likes being SLAPPed.
The federal legislation won’t be enacted in time to help Mr. VanVoorhis, but as noted at Simple Justice, “. . . the news isn’t all bad for VanVoorhis. He’s defended by one of the most vigorous and brilliant free speech on the internet lawyers around, Marc Randazza. And Randazza isn’t satisfied to just defend a blogger’s right to free speech and fair use. He’s going after the dog-shooter as well.”
Bonus (and less disturbing video): Red Hot Chili Peppers — True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes