From her Washington hotel on Jan. 6, Kathryn Cagle asked for prayers and assured friends and family via Facebook that she and her mother were safe. “Yes, Mama and I are in Washington, D.C.,” Cagle allegedly posted the day a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Cagle’s followers reacted with thumbs-up and heart emoji. But not everyone was feeling the love.

“I thought Kate Cagle [was] on the planning committee, I hope she doesn’t plan to make a career out of planning riots,” Rayven Goolsby later wrote on Facebook. In a separate post, she addressed Cagle’s mother, Thelma Cagle. “Didn’t you attend the insurrection? I am pretty sure you did.”

In late February, the exchange jumped from social media to a superior court in Pickens County, Ga., when the Cagles sued Goolsby for defamation and libel. Goolsby’s attorney, Andrew Fleischman, characterized the Cagles’ suit as an example of a prominent family active in local politics using the heft of the courts to intimidate his client, who works at a local grocery store, into silence.

On Feb. 23, senators probed security officials on their experiences during the Jan. 6 insurrection of the Capitol. (Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

The social media posts at the heart of the dispute, including deleted ones referring to the Jan. 6 protest, are preserved as screenshots in legal filings. None of the parties deny making the remarks cited in the dueling complaints.

Goolsby’s remarks focused on Kathryn and Thelma Cagle for their alleged “central roles” in organizing busloads of attendees through the “Women for America First” tour; they also touched on William Cagle, husband of Thelma and father to Kathryn, calling him a homophobic “loser.”

Goolsby’s remarks, made in various community Facebook groups, were in reference to William Cagle musing on Facebook when the county was mulling separate bathrooms for transgender people that he did “not appreciate his tax dollars being spent on supporting indecency and a couple of FREAKS that can’t make up their mind where to take a leak.”

Fleischman said the defamation suit against Goolsby is a way of making it expensive to criticize the Cagles — “even if the criticism is true.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid that criticizing an important person in our community could cost us thousands of dollars,” Fleischman told The Washington Post. He argued that Goolsby has truth and public interest on her side.

On Friday, Goolsby filed a motion under a Georgia law that grants protection from what’s known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits.

Kathryn, William and Thelma Cagle are named as plaintiffs in the defamation and libel lawsuit against Goolsby. They allege in their filing that, since January, Goolsby has “disparaged and defamed” the family with repeated and unprovoked online harassment that harms their reputations and unfairly associates them with “patently criminal conduct.”

An attorney for the Cagles said his clients aren’t interested in media attention or making their complaint into a political issue but are simply turning to the court for relief from ongoing harm.

“Our Clients are aggrieved and that is the reason for the suit. It is our Firm and the Cagle’s desire that we can hopefully resolve this in a mutually beneficial and amicable fashion,” David McDonald told The Post via email. He declined to discuss details of the suit, citing the firm’s policy against commenting on pending litigation.

The Cagles are public figures to varying degrees, Goolsby’s motion argues. William Cagle served a term on the Pickens County Planning Commission that ended in December, while Kathryn Cagle is the former chairwoman of the Pickens County Georgia Republican Party. Thelma Cagle, who goes by “Bay” in online postings, sang the national anthem at various rallies in support of Donald Trump. Both women are credited in a third-party post as part of the “core team” that organized busloads of Georgians headed for Washington on Jan. 6.

Fleischman, in the motion, argues that while the Cagles’ roles and actions qualify them as people of public interest, Goolsby’s statements fall into protected categories of speech, including opinion, hyperbole and sarcasm.

He echoed the hope expressed by the Cagles’ attorney that the matter can be resolved amicably, but suggested that in the end, suing his client may give the plaintiffs more than they bargained for.

The anti-SLAPP motion notes that Kathryn Cagle deleted all of her social media history pertaining to Jan. 6. If the matter goes into discovery, both sides could be compelled to produce troves of personal data, such as GPS location history and message logs — “all kinds of stuff even a police officer would have trouble getting,” Fleischman said.

He offered a bit of free legal advice to a general audience: “You should not file defamation suits if you’re worried about criminal liability.”

Thirty states and Washington, D.C., have anti-SLAPP laws. Ken Paulson, who directs the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said anti-SLAPP laws are like “free-speech insurance.”

“The key to an anti-SLAPP law is to prevent people with a lot of money and resources from intimidating people from saying anything negative about them,” he said. He called the Pickens County suit a “classic case” of why someone files an anti-SLAPP suit.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Kathryn Cagle’s name.

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