This weekend we discussed the Lincoln Project’s public threats to defamation against Rudy Giuliani. The project itself had to contend with issues of defamation against members of the Trump family. The project was accused of doxxing and trolling Republicans and waging a harassment campaign against election lawyers after Biden was declared the 2020 election winner. In the Giuliani controversy, co-founder Steve Schmidt said he was “thrilled” with Giuliani’s interview and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to defamation. Within 48 hours the project became embroiled in another possible defamation controversy after publicly declaring that its own co-founder, John Weaver, is “a predator, a liar and an abuser.”
As noted, I have watched the explosion in libel suits and claims with particular interest over the past four years since teaching defamation for the past 30 years. This has been a gold mine of such cases that I often discuss with my students. While many defamation claims have resulted in filings, we have turned a number of high profile political controversies into actual crime disputes. In keeping with the project’s own style, however, I was attacked when I tweeted that this could trigger another defamation campaign. I received emails defending a pedophile and abuser simply by stating that given Weaver’s disapproval, the dispute could lead to litigation. I never met Schmidt or said anything to support him. In fact, I was one of the vocal critics of Schmidt’s Lincoln Project for its vicious rhetoric and abusive tactics. In today’s politics, however, it is easier to attack people personally than to address their points of view. Indeed, hatred is addicting and such attacks relieve people of the burden of reason. The Lincoln Project has drawn millions to address such visceral impulses. There is complete impunity when attacking those who are considered abusers or facilitators. Intolerance is seen as a virtue today. Weaver himself once proudly declared, “In our party, intolerance can no longer be tolerated,” a license claimed by academics and activists to attack and abuse others.
Now back to the subject of defamation. The online magazine The American Conservative previously announced that Weaver has long been accused of sending unsolicited sexual messages to young men online. Weaver, who worked for the late Senator John McCain (R., Arizona) and former Governor John Kasich, has been accused of such behavior for many years. Then, that weekend, the mainstream media finally covered the story. Nearly two dozen men say they were sexually molested by Weaver, a staggering number of alleged victims.
Weaver now accepts that some messages were “inappropriate” but claims that he “viewed” [them] than amicable, mutual conversations at the time. “
After the stories were published, the Lincoln Project denounced its co-founder as a “predator, liar and abuser”.
The allegations seem pretty damned and well documented. A victim says he was only 14 years old when the news started. However, the Lincoln Project Statement on Weaver was drafted as fact and did not even use the “as claimed” qualifier. This is rare for a large organization with legal counsel. No criminal investigation has been completed, let alone a decision. This is usually the standard for attorneys to include qualifications, especially when discussing a former employee or executive. Instead, the statement was like many of the Lincoln Project attack reports.
The question is whether the Lincoln project could be sued by Weaver.
As a threshold, Weaver may not want a lawsuit that opens up to discoveries, and particularly to deposits. With 21 men already registered, a legal battle would be brutal. However, as evident from the Epstein litigation, lawsuits tend to incite counterclaims, and defamation actions are common in such battles.
Now for the merits. Weaver is clearly a “public figure” because of his political career and co-founding the Lincoln Project. This issue will turn Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 US 323, 352 (1974) and his descendants of cases. The Supreme Court has ruled that public figure status applies when someone “bumps”[s] get into the vortex of [the] public edition [and] engage[s] public attention to influence the outcome. “A publicly available status for individuals with a limited purpose applies when someone” pulls “voluntarily[s] Paying attention to yourself “or allowing yourself to be part of a controversy” as the focal point of public discussion. “Wolston v Reader’s Digest Association, 443, US 157, 168 (1979).
The standard for defamation of public figures and officials in the United States is the result of a decision in the New York Times against Sullivan decades ago. This is exactly the environment in which the opinion was drafted and he is exactly the type of plaintiff that the opinion should put off. The Supreme Court ruled that tort law cannot be used to override the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech or the free press. The Court sought to give the media “breathing space” by formulating this standard that now applies to both civil servants and public figures. To prevail, Weaver must show either actual knowledge of his falsehood or a reckless disregard for the truth.
The truth remains the main defense against defamation.
In this case, the Lincoln Project clearly accuses Weaver of criminal behavior. The Lincoln Project noted that Giuliani did the same by saying that someone associated with the project was helping organize the recent riots on Capitol Hill. This is more direct and Weaver insists that he view the news as amicable. As such, it would fall into the per se categories of defamation, which include allegations of criminal conduct as well as professional misconduct.
In contrast to the Giuliani controversy, there is little leeway in the terms used by the project. Again, it is surprising to see the lack of qualifiers and the testimony of the allegations as fact.
The project also accused Weaver of using his “position of power and trust” to harass these men.
As such, Weaver would have an identifiable act of defamation. Unlike many legal disputes, this would not concern the interpretation of the words, only the truth. The Lincoln Project would have to prove that he was indeed “a predator, a liar and an abuser” who used his positions to sacrifice others.