Out gay Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman appeared in Times Square on October 29 to promote legislation passed this summer under his leadership in tandem with Queens Assemblymember Helene Weinstein that would make it easier for defendants faced with frivolous free speech-chilling lawsuits to combat the effort to shut them up. The need for the measure, he said, is highlighted by the threat from Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to take legal action against billboards in Times Square criticizing them and the Trump administration.
The measure, which would strengthen New York State’s current anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) law, was approved by both houses of the Legislature in July and awaits action by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Hoylman, joined by several advocacy groups, stood across the street from adjoining billboards picturing Trump and Kushner that criticize the Trump administration’s failures on stemming the COVID crisis.
State Senate Judiciary chair notes that nuisance lawsuit threatening free speech key to “Trump family playbook”
One sign has a smiling Ivanka holding up her hands toward statistics showing that more than 33,000 New Yorkers and 224,000 Americans have died in the pandemic. The picture of Ivanka was taken from an image she posted on social media hawking Goya Beans after that company’s CEO, Robert Unanue, praised her father’s administration.
The billboard of Jared quotes him saying that New Yorkers “are going to suffer and that’s their problem,” a statement reported last month by Vanity Fair in a story about the first son-in-law’s ad hoc efforts in the spring to chart a plan for supplying the nation’s frontline healthcare workers with personal protective equipment in fighting the coronavirus.
The billboards were put up on October 22 by the Lincoln Project, a group of prominent Republican and ex-Republican Never-Trumpers. In response to the billboards, Marc E. Kasowitz, an attorney representing Trump and Kushner, in a written statement, termed the signs “false, malicious, and defamatory” and threatened to sue.
“Of course, Mr. Kushner never made any such statement, Ms. Trump never made any such gesture, and the Lincoln Project’s representations that they did are an outrageous and shameful libel,” Mr. Kasowitz wrote. “If these billboard ads are not immediately removed, we will sue you for what will doubtless be enormous compensatory and punitive damages.”
According to the New York Times, Outfront Media, which rented the space to the Lincoln Project, got cold feet after Kasowitz’s statement and informed the Lincoln Project it believed the billboards should come down. Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson, in response, told Outfront Media, “Don’t expect us to be quiet if you take this billboard down. We will tell the truth about what happened.’”
A week later, the billboards, which were leased for two weeks, remain up.
Hoylman argued that lawsuits such as the one threatened by Kasowitz are not intended to be successful “but to intimate, to harass, to bankrupt opponents.” He mentioned a 2011 lawsuit the president brought against a publisher who reported that Trump’s net worth was far lower than he claimed — in the millions, not the billions of dollars.
“I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees and they spent a whole lot more,” Hoylman quoted Trump as saying at the time. “I did it to make their lives miserable which I’m happy about.”
“Threatening critics with lawsuits has been a page out of the Trump family playbook for years,” Hoylman, who chairs the State Senate Judiciary Committee, said, adding the tactic has been “Donald Trump’s go-to method of stifling dissent.”
The threatened lawsuit by the president’s daughter and son-in-law, he added, is an effort “to pervert the legal system to stifle dissent. They knew they had no basis to sue.”
The Hoylman-Weinstein measure is aimed a curing what its sponsors argue is an overly narrow anti-SLAPP law currently on the books in New York, making the state “an ideal venue” to bring a meritless defamation suit. The proposed would protect speech or any other First Amendment conduct related to an issue of public interest and would make SLAPP plaintiffs making claims deemed clearly unfounded liable for covering defendants’ legal fees. Hoylman said his bill would make New York’s statute as strong as California’s, which is viewed as the nation’s most effective anti-SLAPP protection.
Hoylman was joined in Times Square by Daniel Novack, co-chair of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Media Law, Michael McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC and a defendant in a SLAPP lawsuit brought by real estate interests, and Danielle Brecker, co-lead of Empire State Indivisible, a chapter of a nationwide grassroots anti-Trump coalition.
Novack said, “Free speech isn’t free when the wealthy and powerful weaponize the courts to punish truthful reporting and criticism. Expansion of anti-SLAPP is urgently needed to safeguard our First Amendment rights.”
At the conclusion of the press conference, Hoylman thanked Cuomo for asking the measure to be delivered to his office today, which starts a 10-workday clock in which the governor has to decide whether he will sign it into law.
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.