Long-stalled defamation cases against Gateway Pundit could move ahead

Two major defamation cases against Jim Hoft, the St. Louisan who publishes The Gateway Pundit, an influential far-right website, appear  poised to gain momentum in the weeks ahead after months of delays. 

The cases, in Denver and St. Louis, are taking place against a backdrop of huge victories recently by the plaintiffs in two other defamation cases. First, the families of children slaughtered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 won more than $1.4 billion against Alex Jones, the far-right podcaster who called the massacre a hoax.  Then Fox News, which promoted the fiction that Dominion Voting Systems had rigged the 2020 election against Donald J. Trump, settled out of court with Dominion for $787.5 million.  

Photo by Marco Verch via Flickr

The Denver case against Hoft, which is further along than the one in St. Louis, involves not only him but also several other prominent defendants, including Trump lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and the 2020 Trump Campaign itself. The plaintiff is Eric Coomer, the former chief of security for Dominion Voting Systems. He claims the defendants all accused him of personally rigging the 2020 election for Joe Biden, resulting in death threats that forced him into hiding and to leave his job.  

 Coomer filed suit in December 2020.  The last major ruling in the case took place in May 2022, when a Colorado District Court Judge issued a stinging rejection of a motion to have the matter dismissed. In her rejection, Judge Marie Aver Moses excoriated all the defendants, Hoft included. About him and The Gateway Pundit she wrote:  

“… there is evidence that Hoft-TGP repeatedly, without evidence, falsely accused Coomer of overturning the presidential election.  … Further, there is evidence Hoft-TGP’s allegations incited threats of real violence against Coomer, including posting an article advertising a million-dollar bounty on Coomer. … There is prima facie evidence that Hoft-TGP acted recklessly and with the intent to cause Coomer severe emotional distress.  Coomer has put forward prima facie evidence establishing both falsity and Hof-TGP’s actual malice. … Coomer has established a reasonable likelihood that he will prevail on his claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress against Hoft-TGP.”    

The judge’s words, it should be noted, were obviously crafted to match the legal standard for defamation set out in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case of 1964.  The U.S. Supreme Court said in that case that defendants had to show “actual malice” – meaning they knew what they were saying was false or recklessly disregarded that possibility – to be found guilty.

But all the defendants went to the Colorado Court of Appeals, and there the appeals process has languished while the defendants – most notably Giuliani — have repeatedly obtained extensions for their filings. Hoft’s attorneys  asked for only one extension, and that for a mere two weeks. Their appeal has been based, in part on the argument that that “all of TGP’s and Hoft’s statements are, on their face, protected by the First Amendment, not the least because all of their statements have been protected opinion.”  

Earlier this month, however, the court requested that final appeals be submitted by June 23. That means that the appeals court will finally have what it needs to render a decision and either move the case forward or not.  Whether that decision comes in a matter of a few weeks or many months, however, will be up to the court.  

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer on May 10 appointed a special master to help resolve protracted disputes over the plaintiffs’ discovery requests. The special master is Peter Dunne, a lawyer and mediator with the St. Louis firm of Pitzer & Snodgrass.  He is expected to expedite progress in a case in which the plaintiffs have repeatedly accused Hoft’s side of delay tactics. 

The plaintiffs in St. Louis are two Georgia women, Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, who worked the polls on election night in 2020 in Atlanta. Beginning In November of 2020, The Gateway Pundit accused them of having processed the same votes for Joe Biden multiple times while election observers weren’t looking.  Georgia election officials immediately and publicly refuted the accusation – the two women had in fact done nothing wrong – but The Gateway Pundit continued to accuse them for months in a total of 58 different articles, the suit alleges. Death threats and other harassment followed. In addition to Jim Hoft, the defendants in the case are his identical twin brother, Joe Hoft, who wrote some of the stories, and TGP Communications LLC, the company that does business as The Gateway Pundit, and which Jim Hoft owns in whole.

Freeman and Moss filed their case in St. Louis Circuit Court in December 2021.  But its progress since then has been halting and marked by some extraordinary tactics on the part of the defense, legal  observers say.

First the defendants “improperly removed” the case from the Circuit Court to U. S. District Court, according to one of the plaintiffs’ motions. That resulted in a six-month delay until U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey remanded it  to the circuit court in June 2022.  

Then the defendants, again according to the plaintiffs, repeatedly failed to live up to various commitments they made to produce information requested in pre-trial discovery. The defendants countered that many of the requests were “unduly burdensome and wildly inappropriate.”

Last Dec. 20, St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser sided mostly with the plaintiffs and ordered the defendants to comply with most of the requests by early January.  But the defendants, while providing some of the requested documents, didn’t produce others, the defendants contend.  “Notably,” they wrote in an April 24 motion, “the production omits documents relating to TGP’s revenues.”

Revenue-related information stands at the heart of the case, because the plaintiffs have suggested that it could “shed light on Defendants’ profit motive in publishing defamatory articles and could bear on actual malice.” They added: “… it defies credulity that TGP does not have documents or information demonstrating how much money it earned during the relevant period or how much of this was generated by the Articles.” 

The plaintiffs’ April 24 filing also accuses The Gateway Pundit of failing to produce information pertaining to its relationship with Decide Technologies, previously known as LockerDome. The GJR has reported previously that St. Louis-based Decide had until sometime in the first quarter of 2022 been serving ads to The Gateway Pundit website. 

 But also on April 24, Hoft’s lawyers, led by St. Louis attorney John C. Burns, submitted a motion seeking dismissal of the entire case on the ground that the articles in question were protected by an “anti-SLAPP” law in Georgia. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”  A number of states have enacted anti-SLAPP laws for the purpose of protecting against suits that seek to intimidate or silence critics by burdening them with expensive litigation.

 Regardless, it’s also notable that Burns argued in his motion to dismiss the St. Louis case that The Gateway Pundit was only reporting what others were saying.  Their “statements were based on representations … by third parties, including President Donald J. Trump’s legal team,” he wrote.  

The motion adds: “There is no evidence of knowing falsity, as Defendants did, and still do, believe that Plaintiffs participated in election fraud in the manner described in their articles and as explained by third parties.” 

Meanwhile, as the GJR reported Jan. 26, The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers also counter-sued the two poll workers as well as two of the nonprofit legal groups that are part of the women’s legal team and three individuals serving as lawyers for these nonprofits.  Michael A. Kahn, a prominent St. Louis attorney with expertise in First Amendment issues who is not involved in the case, commented at the time that the counterclaim was “an unusual and unusually aggressive move” that might also serve to delay the case.   

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor, communications consultant and frequent contributor to GJR.

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