Thursday, June 21, 2007
From Yaman's amateur ramblings
Kaplan vs Salahi
As a student at UC Berkeley, the center for the Free Speech Movement, I never thought I’d find myself at the receiving end of a politically-motivated libel lawsuit. I am the creator of a blog called “Lee Kaplan Watch” which focuses on analyzing the integrity of Kaplan’s published articles. When he discovered the website, Kaplan began a campaign of intimidation, including e-mail threats of legal action and various online smears alleging that I was a Nazi, a Ba`athist, and a member of al-Qaeda. He threatened to harass me and members of my family, and even went so far as to contact the Dean of Student Life at the university. After asking me to stop writing about his work several times, he finally filed a lawsuit against me in small claims court for “tortious business interference,” libel, and slander.
Lee Kaplan, for those who are unaware, is a journalist for David Horowitz’ right-wing, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab publication, FrontPageMag.com. He is also associated with a number of regressive organizations like the Bruin Alumni Association, the United American Committee, StopTheISM, Dafka, and the Northeastern Intelligence Network. Kaplan chooses easy and weak targets and he chooses them well, focusing on students who mobilize on campuses throughout the country in opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. He is more relevant in the San Francisco area, where his extreme and annoying behavior has often come under scrutiny. He has widespread financial and organizational backing at his disposal, a privilege that others and myself, as college students, are sorely lacking.So it goes that Kaplan cleverly decided to sue me in small claims court, where standards for evidence are virtually non-existent, procedures occur at the discretion of the judge, and no record of court proceedings are kept. These low standards allowed Kaplan to present misleading and false material as “evidence” that I had defamed him and cost him a job offer writing for SportsBlogger.com, a website which does not even exist and has not for at least the past 2 years. Even more troubling, I had never written the very things he claimed were defamatory. One of the statements was taken from a spoof of my blog on a third-party website that I have no control over. The other simply does not exist. In addition to the lack of evidence, nearly arbitrary procedures meant that three witnesses, including a computer expert who could attest to the fact that my website did not contain those statements, were not able to testify during the 25 minute hearing, and my lawyer was asked not to present legal arguments in my defense.
Despite all of these problems with the evidence, the judge, for reasons I will never know, bought one of Kaplan’s many claims and ordered me to pay him $7,500. I will never know which ones or why because judges in small claims court do not release written opinions explaining their rulings. Furthermore, as far as I know, the decision is not appealable to a higher court. That means I have no recourse against a judgment given without justification despite the fact that it punishes me for exercising my first amendment rights to political speech.
Dave Johnson at SeeingTheForest was right to call this “a freedom of speech and right-to-blog issue.” Ann Althouse, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, commented on the lawsuit saying that “thinking small [as in, small claims court] looks like an effective way to squelch speech.” But she poses the more serious question regarding the fact that this suit was brought before a court that doesn’t write opinions: “if the court’s opinion doesn’t explain what you did wrong, how can you keep writing? You have to worry about the next small claims lawsuit.”
What does this mean? It means that this lawsuit is not only about me, and is not only about Lee Kaplan. It is about the real danger that underhanded legal tactics like these pose to all bloggers and those without the resources to protect themselves from abusive litigation that is aimed at silencing them. For now, it looks like small claims court is a convenient and reliable route for anybody who can dish out $75, the cost of filing a claim, to harass and intimidate those they disagree with. Real evidence and a credible story might not even be necessary to make a hefty return on that small investment. At least, that is what I have learned with this experience.
In the meantime I continue to investigate my legal options to see if there is any way to salvage my free speech rights. To that end I have established a fund to collect donations that will go either towards paying legal expenses in case of an appeal or paying off the lawsuit if there are no other options. But I will also continue to blog about this and other contentious issues, despite the enormous pressure that this abusive lawsuit has put my family, friends, and myself under.
For those who might be fearful to speak up due to cases like this, you have every right to be weary. Indeed, this case is very ominous in its implications. But the worst thing we could possibly do is shy away from continuing to publicly take firm, principled, and dedicated political stands. We should remain courageous enough to embrace and confront contentious political issues, especially those regarding the cause of the Palestinian people in particular and American involvement in the Middle East in general, despite what we have faced and, no doubt, what will continue to come our way.
I have written extensively about my reaction to the ruling and my thoughts on Kaplan’s claims on the blog here and here for those who would like more information about the case. You may also browse the court’s record of documents and filings by clicking here. If you would like further comment from me regarding this case, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would also like to make a small request that those who are in the least bit outraged by this story please do what they can to publicize it by e-mailing it to friends and listservs, writing about it on blogs, or sharing it on websites like Facebook and MySpace. People need to know about this new method of shutting down dissent so that steps can be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.