Redskins owner Dan Snyder drops lawsuit against Washington City Paper

September 10, 2011

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder dropped his lawsuit against the Washington City Paper on Saturday, ending a seven-month legal battle with the publication over an article that Snyder said had defamed him.

Snyder had sought $1 million in general damages as well as unspecified punitive damages from the weekly paper; its parent company, Creative Loafing; and journalist Dave McKenna. McKenna’s story in November, “The Cranky Redskins Fans’ Guide to Dan Snyder,” was an unflattering account of Snyder’s tenure as owner of Washington’s NFL team, with an encyclopedia-style listing of alleged missteps and public-relations controversies over the years.

Snyder denounced the story and the newspaper, and filed suit in early February after the newspaper declined to apologize or retract the piece.

But people close to Snyder said the team’s owner felt vindicated when City Paper’s publisher, Amy Austin, acknowledged in a story published in April that one aspect of the story was not meant to be construed as literally true.

“We prefer to focus on the coming football season and the business at hand,” Tony Wyllie, Snyder’s spokesman, said in a statement disclosing the withdrawal.

The Redskins open their season Sunday at FedEx Field against the New York Giants.

Snyder agreed to dismiss his suit, and both sides agreed to bear their own legal costs as well as to a mutual release of future claims in negotiations that were completed Saturday evening. City Paper said in a statement Saturday that the cost of defending itself went “well beyond” the $34,000 its readers had contributed to a legal defense fund. It did not say how much was spent.

City Paper has maintained that Snyder’s lawsuit was meritless and an attempt to stifle criticism of the Redskins’ owner. It stood by the story and McKenna from the beginning.

“This is a great day for free speech,” said Michael Schaffer, City Paper’s editor. “This is a great day for the citizens of D.C., which has a legal system that protects them from being bullied by people who don’t like what was said.”

In his original lawsuit, Snyder said he was defamed by several parts of the article, including the suggestion that he had been kicked out as chairman of the board of the Six Flags amusement park chain and had gone “all Agent Orange” by cutting down a stand of trees on federally protected land that blocked river views from his Potomac mansion in 2004. He also objected to the story’s assertion that he had been “caught forging names” on consumers’ long-distance phone contracts while he headed a marketing firm, Snyder Communications, before taking over the Redskins in 1999. He denied all of those allegations.

Snyder also said that the story insulted his wife, Tanya, a breast cancer survivor who has been active in efforts to promote awareness of the disease, and that a photo illustration of him with horns and a goatee was anti-Semitic.

But Snyder backed off most of his claims about the story as settlement talks with City Paper and its attorneys began this summer after the paper filed a motion to dismiss the suit.

By the end, only the story’s statement about forgery was at issue, said someone who has worked with Snyder. The owner and his advisers became satisfied by assurances that the forgery comment referred to people who worked for Snyder Communications, not Snyder himself, said the person familiar with Snyder’s position, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not Snyder’s official spokesman.

The allegation in question involves Snyder Communications and GTE Communications, which agreed to pay $2.5 million to the state of Florida in 2001 to settle allegations of “slamming,” the unauthorized switching of long-distance accounts. At the time, Florida officials said they found “thousands of instances” in which employees of Snyder’s company switched customers from their existing provider to GTE without permission. GTE had hired Snyder’s company to market its phone service. None of the parties admitted wrongdoing.

In his statement, Wyllie said: “The lawsuit was pursued as a means to correct the public record following several critical factual misstatements in the Washington City Paper article. In the course of the defendants’ recently filed pleadings and statements in this matter, the Washington City Paper and its writer have admitted that certain assertions contained in the article that are the subject of the lawsuit, were, in fact, unintended by the defendants to be read literally as true.”

He added: “Therefore, we see nothing further to be gained at this time through continuing the lawsuit. . . . The principle that the truth and the facts matter in responsible journalism has been vindicated.”

In a New York Times magazine article published Thursday, Snyder was quoted as saying that he never read all of the article he sued about. He said he sued “because I heard all the details. But the entire piece? I’m not going to read that.”

Legal experts had said that Snyder faced long odds of winning the suit, in part because the law gives strong protections to the news media in reporting about public figures.

The weekly paper stood firm as Snyder amended his suit in April and refiled it in Superior Court in Washington, moving it from its original venue in New York. The change enabled Snyder to add McKenna, a District resident, to his list of defendants.

Snyder’s case also appeared to be complicated by a new District law that was designed to protect citizens against lawsuits intended to intimidate them from reporting on matters of public concern.

The anti-SLAPP law — for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — is similar to laws in other states that require a plaintiff to demonstrate that a lawsuit is “likely to succeed” on the merits and is not merely a pretext for saddling a defendant with expensive legal bills to force the defendant into silence.

City Paper, which was advised by First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, filed a motion seeking dismissal of Snyder’s suit under the SLAPP law in June, only a few weeks after the law went into effect. Snyder’s representatives said the filing did not affect their decision to drop the suit.

A judge has not ruled on the motion, but the publication told the court it intended to show “the improper purposes” behind his action. It cited a letter to City Paper’s publisher last year from David Donovan, the Redskins’ former chief operating officer and general counsel, that threatened an expensive legal battle unless Snyder received a retraction and an apology. Snyder opposed the SLAPP motion, arguing in a court filing that the underlying law was invalid because the District had overstepped its legal authority in enacting it. With the suit’s withdrawal, the motion is now moot.

“Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation,” Donovan wrote at the time. “We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for [a company] such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.”

McKenna said Saturday that Snyder’s camp asked him to agree not to sue in exchange for withdrawing its lawsuit and that he complied. McKenna writes for The Washington Post’s Style section on a freelance basis.

McKenna’s article about the Redskins owner has become one of the most-viewed stories ever on City Paper’s Web site.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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