It's time, once again, for the Popehat signal, lit to seek help for a blogger threatened with a censorious lawsuit. I'm seeking national First Amendment counsel and local counsel in Nebraska.
The blogger is Bettina Siegel, who writes about kids and food "in school and out" at The Lunch Tray. As part of her blogging, Ms. Siegel wrote about the "pink slime" furor surrounding the beef industry, and started a petition to the USDA. She wasn't named in the industry-driven "pink slime" defamation suit I wrote about in September. However, she — along with ABC and various journalists — have been named in a new pro se suit.
The June Press Release
I first heard of the plaintiff — Bruce Smith — when his wife issued a press release last June announcing his new book "Pink Slime Ate My Job" and his impending lawsuit.
PINK SLIME” Press Release
You are invited to attend:
Former Beef Products (BPI) EHS Director, Bruce Smith, will be holding a press conference on June 26, 2012, commencing at 1:30 pm at Sterling Green Estates Meeting Room, 320 Dakota Dunes Blvd., Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, to announce his filing of a civil lawsuit against a national news broadcasting company and other prominent individuals involved in the “pink slime” ground beef controversy Smith now refers to as March Meat Madness Month 2012 in his new book on the subject entitled Pink Slime Ate My Job, a soon to be released non-fiction account from an insider’s standpoint, published by Rauttnee Publishing Company. Smith is one of nearly 1,000 employees who lost their jobs after BPI was forced to close three of its four lean beef production plants following the ‘viral’ explosion of the “pink slime” news story beginning in March 2012. Copies of the lawsuit will be provided to those attending, along with an introduction to Smith's new book about the “pink slime” saga from the insider's viewpoint.
Lisa K. Smith
Public Relations Manager
Rauttnee Publishing Company
I wrote requesting some information. Ms. Smith wrote back:
Dear Ken ~
Thank you for your inquiry. At this time, no further information will be released until next Tuesday, June 26th, when Mr. Smith will be holding his press conferece with the media invited. After that time, perhaps your questions will be answered.
Lisa K. Smith
But the press conference did not take place, and Mr. Smith did not then file the lawsuit. He did, however, publish his book, apparently through Rauttnee, which is his own company and also publishes his contemporary piano music.
The December Lawsuit
For some time, we heard nothing from Mr. Smith. Ms. Siegel continued to blog, attracting occasional abusive and anti-Semitic comments. Six months later, Mr. Smith — who is an attorney, but is pro se in this case — sued a group of media defendants, including Ms. Siegel, in state court in Nebraska. Mr. Smith announced the suit at a press conference at which his book and posters promoting it were featured prominently; he says that he'll donate $100,000 to help people who lost their jobs, so long as he sells 100,000 books.
The suit seems calculated to harass and maximize the cost of a defense. Mr. Smith, a resident of South Dakota, sued Ms. Siegel, a blogger in Texas, in Nebraska. Mr. Smith offers only one cause of action: negligent infliction of emotional distress. (I usually call the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress "butthurt in the first degree"; I suppose this would have to be butthurt in the second degree.) Mr. Smith's choice of a single cause of action appears part of his plan to keep the case out of federal court; he's claimed his damages do not exceed $70,000, which he expressly admits is to evade federal jurisdiction. Mr. Smith has also stated that he hopes many people file low-dollar lawsuits like his, which would, of course, be costly to defend.
Smith's claim against Ms. Siegel is based expressly on her petitioning activity protected by the First Amendment — he complains that she started a petition to the USDA, that she used the term "pink slime" (which he, like his industry, believes is unprotected by the First Amendment), and that she blogged using a picture to depict pink slime that actually depicted something else.
Smith's claim has numerous patent problems that will be obvious to practitioners. Please consider being part of this defense. Reach out to he at ken at popehat dot etc. Remember: harassment suits work because the legal system is inadequate to address them. As a result, people like Mr. Smith can chill and deter citizens from participating in public debate. You can be part of the fight against such conduct, which is ultimately a fight for everyone's freedom of speech.