Exclusive: Hearing scheduled in Gateway Pundit defamation case

A hearing that could either strengthen or upend the defamation case by two Georgia poll workers against The Gateway Pundit, the far-right website operated by St. Louisan Jim Hoft, is scheduled for July 13 in St. Louis Circuit Court.  

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer is set to hear the plaintiffs’ request to dismiss a motion that The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers filed in May, calling for the whole case to be dismissed on free speech grounds.  He also will listen to discussion of a motion to dismiss the defendants’ counter-claim – a motion The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers filed last March alleging that the outlet, not the two Georgia poll workers, were the ones being defamed.

The stakes appear to be high for both sides in the case, which revolves around the accusation by Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” The case revolves around the accusation by Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss that they were falsely – and repeatedly– accused by The Gateway Pundit of having helped rig the vote-counting in Georgia against Donald Trump in 2020.  But the hearing is coming against the backdrop of fresh recommendations from a court-appointed special master that largely favor the two women and could produce new ammunition for their position. 

Trump supporters gather at the Minnesota Governor’s Residence after a “Storm The Capitol” event at the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo provided by Chad Davis via Flickr

In a “Report and Recommendation” filed July 7, special master Peter Dunne showed no sympathy for the defendants’ argument that discovery in the case should be halted on “anti-SLAPP” grounds. Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) laws are designed to prevent the filing of suits as an intimidation tactic against the exercise of First amendment rights.  The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers have alleged that the two women’s suit against their client fits that description.

But Dunne said that in Missouri, “anti-SLAPP actions are restricted to conduct or speech undertaken or made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting.” And that, he noted, is not the situation with this case.

Dunne’s recommendation applied only to the request by the defendants to halt discovery until the judge could rule on the request to throw out the case altogether on anti-SLAPP grounds. But his reasoning appeared to offer little encouragement to The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers that they could succeed with that argument.

In the same “Report and Recommendation,” Dunne also mostly came down on the side of the two women in several other of discovery-related disputes that have bogged down the case for months.  Stelzer appointed Dunne in May to resolve these disputes.   

Perhaps most importantly, Dunne noted that the lawyers for the Hofts had objected to the plaintiffs’ request for “a complete and accurate accounting of revenues generally and in connection with the articles specifically,” calling the request overly broad and overly time-consuming.  But Dunne recommended that the court order the defendants to comply with the request. 

If, as expected, that recommendation is accepted by the court, it would appear that The Gateway Pundit will be compelled to turn over at least some financial information that could be central to the defamation case. The information could shed light on the publisher’s motive for persisting in publishing “known falsehoods” about the two women and about its “journalistic practices and ethical standards,” as the initial complaint in the case alleged.

In another potentially significant part of his July 7 “Report and Recommendation” — and one that involves another St. Louis company — Dunne recommended that the court grant the plaintiffs’ request for “documents relating to Defendants’ audience monetization strategy, advertising networks, advertisement servers, and about Decide Technology …” Decide Technologies, formerly known as LockerDome, is a St. Louis-based company that, as the GJR has previously reported, served ads for many years to The Gateway Pundit website.

The special master gave the defendants a win by refusing to order them to turn over more information about Google’s decision in 2021 to stop serving ads to The Gateway Pundit because it was violating Google’s standards by posting misleading content.  Dunne said his review of the situation left him “unable to conclude” that The Gateway Pundit had anything more to hold back.  

He also declined the request by the plaintiffs’ lawyers to order the defendants to cover all attorneys’ fees and costs.  Both sides in the case see it as a matter of “great importance,” he wrote.  And “the legal and discovery issues in this case, both on behalf of Plaintiffs and Defendants, have been pursued and presented with great zeal, skill, and ability on the part of counsel for all parties.”  The fact that they have strenuously disagreed, he said, is therefore not surprising,

But Dunne came down on the side of the women and their attorneys on several other issues.  For example, he said the defendants had to produce all text messages related to the case, and all social media postings as well.  He also recommended that The Gateway Pundit be compelled to produce any additional information that may exist about the organization’s “accuracy and compliance department, including documents relating to how, when and why this department was created …”   

In riveting testimony a year ago to the US House Committee Investigating the Jan. 6 on the Capitol, Freeman and Moss said their lives had been turned upside down by the harassment they received in the aftermath of the accusations made against them, not only by The Gateway Pundit but also by Rudolph Giuliani and One America News Network. They sued each of their accusers separately, filing their case against The Gateway Pundit and its sole owner, Jim Hoft, in St. Louis Circuit Court in December of 2021. Hoft’s identical twin brother, Joe Hoft, of Miami, who also writes articles for the site, was named as a co-defendant.  

The St. Louis case is one of several high-profile defamation suits involving false claims by right-wing media figures like Alex Jones and outlets like Fox News that have recently captured national attention.  The Gateway Pundit also has been sued for defamation in Denver, in that case by Eric Coomer, the former security chief for Dominion Voting Systems.  

But both cases against The Gateway Pundit have moved slowly, and in the St. Louis case, various legal observers have said stall tactics by the defendants have been part of the reason.  These have included what the plaintiffs’ attorneys called an “improper” attempt to transfer the case to federal court – an effort that ultimately failed, but which consumed six months – and a lack of full cooperation to comply with numerous requests by the plaintiffs in pre-trial discovery. As noted, the defendants also took the rather extreme step of counter-suing the two Georgia women and some of their lawyers.

Dunne was appointed to help cut through some of these obstacles. The July 13 hearing will likely do the same, one way or the other.

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