Judge throws out Outdoor writer Tom Stienstra’s defamation lawsuit against fly fishing blog
This is the one we’ve been waiting for. Simply put, the First Amendment won. Blogging won. Freedom of Speech won. And yes, I won.
By contrast, the Chronicle’s Outdoor Writer Tom Stienstra lost. And in more than simply legal terms.
That a journalist like Stienstra — who has made a good living riding the coattails of the First Amendment — would try to abridge someone else’s First Amendment rights via a nuisance lawsuit is more than ironic.
It’s damned disgraceful.
Fortunately, last week a Siskiyou County judge said “No” to Chronicle Outdoor Writer Tom Stienstra’s $10,000 defamation lawsuit against the Trout Underground.
The judge did so because the suit didn’t even clear the lowest hurdle — it was filed approximately 2.5 years after the Statute of Limitations said Stienstra could file.
In other words, all of Stienstra’s bullying letters, demands for $10,000 and so-clueless-as-to-be-amusing shtick in court amounted to the following:
Don’t spend it all in one place, Mr. Stienstra.
My Day In Court
For those arriving in the middle of all this, here’s the two-sentence summary. First, I published a short article about San Francisco Chronicle Outdoor Writer Tom Stienstra’s arrest here.
Despite the fact the story is almost identical to the articles published in many of the state’s largest newspapers, Stienstra wanted it taken down, and filed a defamation lawsuit in order to try and make that happen.
He lost. My one regret is that the court (correctly) dismissed Stienstra’s suit because of the statute of limitations.
In other words, Stienstra had no standing to bring the suit, so there was no point in arguing the specifics of his defamation claims.
Ok, I win. Happy time. Winning is good.
(Readers with little to do and an interest in legalspeak can read a scan of the decision here.)
The only downside? I was eager to prove my article wasn’t defamatory, and I never really got that chance.
Three newspaper editors, four newspaper reporters and three attorneys (two of whom are defamation experts) agreed my original article wasn’t defamatory, but I wanted a judge to say it.
Even in victory there is loss.
Like Spinal Tap, But Legal
Sadly, facing Stienstra in court was even more disagreeable than receiving one of his ridiculously over-the-top letters.
He was clearly unprepared but seemed willing to bullshit his way through the appearance, and because he got to speak first, he whined for a good 30 minutes about all the damage my story had done — without actually denying that he was arrested, or that several other similar stories (including the article in his own newspaper) remained online.
At one point, Stienstra astonishingly denied he was a public figure (which would make his defamation claim far easier). Only minutes later — in a fit of boasting — he contradicted himself.
For the record, Stienstra has written many books and newspaper columns and had his own radio show, and in no part of California’s legal code does that allow you to claim you’re not a public figure.
He also bizarrely claimed the Communications Decency Act applied, apparently unaware it has almost nothing to do with defamation law — except the passage which actually protected me from liability for comments made by others on my site.
Bolstering your opponent’s case isn’t exactly a winning legal strategy.
Later, I was treated to the spectacle of Stienstra tying himself into a knot trying to explain why my story was libelous yet his own newspaper’s arguably-more-damming story wasn’t.
(Think “This one goes to 11.”)
I could go on, but when you show up with a carefully prepared legal brief citing Fourth Circuit and Ninth Circuit precedents — and your opponent’s only response is to accuse you of “cherry picking” case cites — you know you’re not exactly playing in Perry Mason territory.
More Constitutionally Protected Opinion
My belief is that this whole mess was never about libel.
Instead, the Trout Underground’s article about Mr. Stienstra’s arrest was the only mention of his arrest appearing on the first page of Google results for “Tom Stienstra.”
I believe Stienstra wanted it removed, and that the bullying letters and the lawsuit were designed to make the post disappear.
Unwittingly, Stienstra seems to have invoked The Streissand Effect, where trying to deep-six an old story calls new attention to it.
Today, this Lost Coast story on Stienstra’s lawsuit also appears on the first page of Stienstra’s Google results. And the Redding Record-Searchlight also ran an article about the suit (it’s behind a paywall, so no link), and it’s possible more articles are coming.
In other words, Stienstra didn’t do himself any favors.
He put myself and my family through something of an ordeal (one of his “witnesses” inappropriately confronted my wife in a supermarket parking lot, adding a creepy dimension to an already irritating situation).
Happily, the First Amendment doesn’t exist at Mr. Stienstra’s leisure, given his difficulties differentiating between libel and speech he finds disagreeable.
The facts of the original post aren’t much in question, and Stienstra’s targeting of the Trout Underground — instead of his own newspaper, or the SacBee, Fox News or Record-Searchlight — suggests something other than a journalist’s mentality.
More importantly, bloggers publishing news stories should not be singled out for legal bullying because they’ve earned good Google rankings and lack a legal staff.
By the same token, folding the tent whenever someone takes exception to what you’ve written is to open the door to further abuses of our free speech rights.
Insurance companies sometimes pay off meritless claims because it’s cheaper than defending them, but all they’ve done is encourage more meritless claims.
I’d rather not see the same principle apply to online speech.
It’s Over. Sorta.
California allows defendants to appeal small claims court rulings, but once the plaintiff loses, it’s finished. In other words, unless Stienstra wants to jump off an even higher legal bridge, this is over.
Thanks to all who supported me in this free speech fight, including the L&T, a trio of attorneys, the friend who endured my court appearance with me, those who felt this lawsuit was a hummer and said so publicly, and the assembled hordes of Undergrounders.
That this lawsuit happened at all is a shame; that it was initiated by a journalist is a damned disgrace.
See you washing his hands of Tom Stienstra and legal stuff in general, Tom Chandler.
In the Redding Record-Searchlight story about the lawsuit’s dismissal (behind a paywall, so you may not be able to access it), Stienstra is quoted as saying:
“He took a wild rumor and turned into a hate story. He lives in a world that only exists in his mind,” Stienstra said in an email.
He said he may still file an injunction against Chandler to have him remove the post.
Can anyone else see the steam coming out of his ears? And thanks to the folks who are giving this some ink (and incoming Google links):
More to come.