Washington City Paper seeks dismissal of Dan Snyder’s defamation suit

June 17, 2011

The Washington City Paper fired back Friday in its ongoing legal battle with Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, filing a motion that seeks dismissal of Snyder’s defamation claim against the weekly publication.

Snyder sued City Paper and its parent company in February, claiming that a story about him in November was defamatory. The story, “The Cranky Redskins Fans Guide to Dan Snyder,” was an unflattering recounting of Snyder’s tenure as Redskins owner and as a businessman. He originally filed the suit in New York, but he refiled it in the District in April, adding the article’s author, Dave McKenna, as a defendant. (McKenna is an occasional freelance contributor to The Washington Post.) Snyder is seeking $1 million in general damages, plus unspecified punitive damages.

In its motion, filed Friday in D.C. Superior Court, City Paper based its request for dismissal of Snyder’s suit on a newly enacted District law that prohibits lawsuits designed to intimidate or silence critics. The law is aimed at so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP, which are suits that use the threat of costly litigation to coerce an opponent to stop criticism or public opposition.

Snyder’s lead attorney in the lawsuit, Patty Glaser, was unavailable for comment Friday. Snyder’s public-relations specialist, Tony Wyllie, could not be reached.

In supporting its case, City Paper cited a letter Snyder’s attorney, David Donovan, sent to its owner, Atalaya Capital Management, in November after McKenna’s article was published. The letter demanded a retraction and an apology for the story and suggested that Snyder could take further action against the paper if it refused.

“Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation and defend himself and his wife against your paper’s concerted attempt at character assassination,” Donovan wrote. “We presume defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment firm such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.”

The motion also cites a comment made at a public forum in April by Wyllie, who described the lawsuit against City Paper as “a warning shot” to news outlets critical of Snyder.

In an April 25 op-ed article in The Washington Post, Snyder wrote: “Criticism comes with the territory and I respect it. . . . Simply put, this lawsuit is about the truth — and the need to correct the record, even when you are a public figure, when your character and integrity are falsely and recklessly attacked.”

The filing could delay or significantly alter the course of Snyder’s suit because an anti-SLAPP motion stays discovery — the process of deposing witnesses and gathering relevant information — until a judge rules on the motion’s merits. This means that Snyder’s attorneys would have to make their case against the motion without having gathered all the facts typically turned up during discovery.

A variety of anti-SLAPP laws have been enacted in about half of the states in recent years, and a uniform federal version has been introduced in Congress by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) but has not passed.

Typically, a party filing such a motion must show that the lawsuit that is being fought is based on constitutionally protected activity. The opponent, in this case Snyder, must then demonstrate to a judge that his lawsuit has a reasonable chance of succeeding. A ruling in favor of such a motion can lead to dismissal of the lawsuit and enables a defendant to recover court costs and expenses.

An anti-SLAPP motion was used successfully in 2009 by radio talk-show host Tom Martino to dismiss a suit brought by an Oregon watercraft dealer. The dealer sued Martino for libel and interference with business relations after Martino told a caller to his consumer-affairs program that the company was “lying” in its dealings with the caller. A federal district court granted Martino’s anti-SLAPP motion and dismissed the case. An appeals court upheld the judgment, saying Martino’s statement was protected by the First Amendment.

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

City Paper sought contributions from its readers to help pay for its legal defense. As of this week, it had raised $31,000, most of it coming in small donations of around $20, according to the newspaper.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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