The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Georgia election workers targeted by Trump sue far-right conspiracy site Gateway Pundit for defamation

Fulton County employee Shaye Moss scans mail-in paper ballots at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Georgia primary elections in Atlanta on June 9, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/AP)

Two women who were Georgia election workers in 2020 are suing the far-right conspiracy website Gateway Pundit for defamation, alleging that the site and its owners knowingly published false stories about them that instigated a relentless campaign of harassment and threats.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in circuit court in St. Louis, the falsehoods about Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, “have not only devastated their personal and professional reputations but instigated a deluge of intimidation, harassment, and threats that has forced them to change their phone numbers, delete their online accounts, and fear for their physical safety.”

The harassment got so bad that at one point, Freeman had to leave her home for two months upon the advice of the FBI, the lawsuit states.

“Lies like those that The Gateway Pundit knowingly told about Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss cannot be divorced from the devastation they leave behind — both for the targeted individuals and for our democracy itself,” Brittany Williams, an attorney with the nonprofit Protect Democracy, which is representing the women, said in a statement.

Freeman and Moss are being represented by Protect Democracy; the law firms DuBose Miller, Dowd Bennett and Kastorf Law; and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic.

Gateway Pundit was founded by James Hoft in 2004. Hoft’s twin brother, Joseph, regularly contributes to the site. Both men are named as defendants in the lawsuit. James Hoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In their lawsuit, Freeman and Moss do not name former president Donald Trump or his campaign as defendants. But they state that the Hofts and Gateway Pundit “apparently drew their inspiration” from a misleading video presented by volunteer Trump campaign attorney Jacki L. Pick at a Dec. 3, 2020 hearing in Georgia.

During the hearing, Pick contended that the video showed several poll workers actively stuffing ballots from “suitcases” hidden under a table covered by a black cloth. Pick did not name the workers, although she said “one of them had the name Ruby across her shirt somewhere.”

A minute-long clip of the video was uploaded to Trump’s personal YouTube account, and Trump himself repeated the false claim of fraud.

In his now-infamous Jan. 2 phone call pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn his defeat, Trump mentioned Freeman by name, calling her “a professional vote scammer” and “hustler” and referring to “the phony ballots of Ruby Freeman — known scammer,” the lawsuit notes.

In actuality, the surveillance video showed no irregularities, illegal behavior or evidence of malfeasance. The supposed “suitcases” were repeatedly identified by election officials as the standard boxes used in Fulton County to transport and store ballots. The video also failed to show any act of hiding or obscuring any ballots or election materials.

At a lengthy news conference in January, Gabriel Sterling, a top Republican election official in Georgia, delivered a point-by-point debunking of the false claim that the video was evidence of election fraud.

Nonetheless, the claim was repeated by the Trump campaign and Gateway Pundit, which published a story hours after the Dec. 3 hearing in which it named Freeman and her business for the first time. The next day, the website published a story identifying Moss by name.

The site continued to run stories defaming the women “long after Inauguration Day” and as recently as August, according to the lawsuit.

For years, Gateway Pundit has promoted a dizzying array of falsehoods, including the conspiracy theory that students who had survived the Parkland, Fla., school shooting were paid “crisis actors”; the baseless claim that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States; and stories incorrectly identifying the gunman in the 2017 Las Vegas concert mass shooting and the driver who killed a woman who was protesting a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.

In the latter case, the Michigan man who was wrongly identified and his father have filed a defamation suit, naming James Hoft among the defendants.

During the 2016 campaign, Gateway Pundit was among the most frequently shared media sources on Twitter and Facebook among followers of Trump, far more than mainstream news outlets, according to a study led by Harvard law professor and Internet scholar Yochai Benkler.

In the wake of the 2020 campaign, the site published dozens of stories promoting Trump’s false claim that the election was “stolen.” There is no evidence of widespread election fraud in that year’s presidential race.

The complaint filed Thursday details the “violent, racist threats and harassment of all kinds” that Freeman and Moss suffered as a result of the website’s alleged actions. Both Freeman and Moss are Black.

As the false stories spread, Freeman was doxed and was forced to shut down her online business. She received at least 420 emails and 75 text messages, including one that warned, “We know where you live, we coming to get you.” Strangers camped out at her home and knocked on her door; sent her pizza deliveries that she had never ordered; mailed her Christmas cards bearing threatening and misogynistic messages; and even showed up at her grandmother’s house on at least two occasions and attempted to push their way inside to make a “citizens’ arrest.”

The lawsuit also states that on Jan. 6 — the day a pro-Trump crowd violently stormed the Capitol in an effort to block congressional certification of Biden’s victory — a crowd of strangers “surrounded Ms. Freeman’s house, some on foot, some in vehicles, others equipped with a bullhorn.”

“Fortunately, Ms. Freeman had followed the FBI’s advice and had temporarily relocated from her home. She was not able to return for two months,” the lawsuit states. “Since returning home, Ms. Freeman has had to purchase eleven cameras and three motion sensors in an effort to safeguard her own home.”

As a result of the threats and harassment sparked by the Gateway Pundit stories, both women “are afraid to live normal lives.”

“Ms. Freeman is fearful when she hears her name called in public; Ms. Moss now fears risking even a visit to the grocery store and must get her groceries delivered instead,” the lawsuit states.

Williams, the Protect Democracy attorney, said that falsehoods such as those promoted by Gateway Pundit “now pollute the information ecosystem in America and threaten the foundations of our system of government.”

“And they are especially pernicious when they aim to intimidate the nonpartisan election officials who are essential to conducting free and fair elections,” she said in a statement. “Those who purposely promote these lies must be, and will be, held accountable.”

Paul Farhi, Adriana Usero, Amy Gardner and Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.