Redskins owner Daniel Snyder moves defamation lawsuit to D.C.

April 26, 2011

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder moved his defamation lawsuit against Washington City Paper from New York to a District court Tuesday, and added the author of the sharply critical article at the heart of the suit as a defendant.

Snyder is seeking $1 million in damages, plus unspecified punitive damages against the weekly newspaper and its immediate owner, Creative Loafing Inc. of Florida. The suit, originally filed in February, stems from City Paper’s publication of a November article, “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder,” by Dave McKenna.

In refiling the suit in the District, Snyder dropped Atalaya Capital Management, the hedge fund that owns Creative Loafing and City Paper, as a defendant, and added McKenna.

Snyder’s lead lawyer, Patty Glaser, said at a morning news conference that the suit was originally filed in New York because Atalaya is headquartered there. However, she said, “We’re satisfied that [Atalaya] had nothing to do with the defamatory comments” in the article. A District court would also have jurisdiction over McKenna.

In addition to changing venues, Snyder and his legal team appear to be emphasizing different elements of their case against the publication.

In his original legal complaint and subsequent interviews, Snyder expressed outrage over a photo illustration that ran with the story depicting him as a devil-like character — an image he said was anti-Semitic. He also alleged that the story demeaned his wife, Tanya’s, efforts to raise awareness of breast cancer as a spokeswoman for the NFL. Tanya Snyder is a breast-cancer survivor.

But in an op-ed column in Tuesday’s Washington Post, the Redskins owner made no mention of his wife or the illustration. Instead, he objected to the article’s characterization of him as a dishonest businessman who, among other things, “got caught forging names as a telemarketer” when he ran Snyder Communications, the company he sold before taking over the Redskins.

Snyder wrote in The Post that such an assertion “goes directly to the heart of my reputation — as a businessman, marketer and entrepreneur. It is false.”

Snyder Communications was among a group of companies that paid $3.1 million to the state of Florida to settle allegations that it switched long-distance phone accounts without customers’ knowledge in 2001, according to a news release issued by the Florida attorney general’s office at the time. The companies admitted no wrongdoing.

Snyder’s rewritten legal complaint, too, plays down the anti-Semitic allegations and stresses that he was held up to “false, malicious and defamatory” statements as a businessman. In his old complaint, for example, “anti-Semitism” is mentioned in the first paragraph. In the new one, it does not appear until the ninth paragraph.

Glaser called the telemarketing allegation “reckless” during a teleconference with reporters. She also rebutted other claims in the City Paper article — that Snyder was “kicked off” the board of Six Flags Inc. and that he cut down trees on National Park Service land adjacent to his home in Potomac without permission — but she did not raise the cartoon or Tanya Snyder.

The lawsuit, she said, “is not about money. It’s about press responsibility.” She jested that Snyder’s chances of winning the suit in Washington depended “on how the Redskins do this year.”

As a legal matter, Snyder may be on somewhat firmer ground demonstrating that McKenna and City Paper made “reckless” statements that damaged Snyder’s business reputation, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. The Supreme Court, in a 1988 case in which the late Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine over an offensive ad parody, has held that publications aren’t liable for damages when a public figure is subject to ridicule or lampooning. “Someone must have told [Snyder], ‘You’re never going to win arguing that you were insulted, so let’s re-purpose the case,’ ” Kirtley said.

The shift in strategy follows the addition of Lanny Davis, a veteran Washington lawyer and longtime friend of the owner, to Snyder’s legal team.

Davis was most visible as former president Bill Clinton’s defender during Clinton’s impeachment trials and has more recently advised controversial clients here and abroad. Davis said he began offering advice to Snyder after the lawsuit was filed, but that Glaser, the lead lawyer, is handling the actual litigation.

McKenna, who writes for The Washington Post on a freelance basis, declined to comment.

Michael Schaffer, City Paper’s editor, said, “We thought the lawsuit was frivolous when it was first filed in New York. We still think it’s frivolous now in D.C. We stand by our story and intend to vigorously defend ourselves.”

As for the forgery allegation, Schaffer said a “reasonable” reader would regard the claim as hyperbole, which is also protected speech. “I don’t think anyone rationally believes the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company is doing the work of front-line workers, but to say that that CEO has no responsibility for what his company does is a very dangerous standard for journalism,” Schaffer said.

City Paper is being represented by Floyd Abrams, the prominent First Amendment lawyer and constitutional scholar.

Snyder has said he will withdraw his suit if City Paper issues an apology and a retraction of the allegedly false statements. City Paper has declined to do either.

D.C. Superior Court has set a scheduling hearing for July 29.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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