Redskins Owner Threatens Newspaper With Libel Suit After Unflattering Article

Dan Snyder is reportedly planning a defamation action against Washington’s City Paper for a scathing story about his controversial time as owner of the Washington Redskins. The case could prove an interesting battle over first amendment rights and defamation law.

Synder is irate about an article written by one of his long-term critics: staff writer Dave McKenna. Synder’s aides has contacted Creative Loafing Inc, which owns the alternative newspaper, and has demanded that McKenna be fired.

Redskins chief operating officer David Donovan made the defamation claim based on the content of the article entitled “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder.” The article is linked below and details a long series of gripes with Synder from allegedly selling second-hand peanuts to cutting down trees protected by federal law to improve his view from his mansion. Environmentalists still despise Synder for cutting down the trees — viewed as a premeditated act where Synder simply paid the fine to give him a view of the river.

The case would be interesting since there is a long list of such grievances –each of which might be challenged. However, Synder is a public figure subject to the active malice standard. He would have to show that the newspaper published a false story with either actual knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. That is a tough standard, particularly when some of the article is clearly opinion.

Some of the items are simple demonstrable facts such as “8-3: Record Marty Schottenheimer posted in the last 11 games of the 2001 season, his first as head coach of the Washington Redskins. Snyder fired him anyway.”

Some are straight reporting that you would find in any newspaper where sources are quoted to reinforce the text:

Bankrupt Airline Peanuts: What Snyder was selling to fans at FedExField. During the 2006 season, vendors offered shelled nuts in royal blue and white 5 oz. bags adorned with the Independence Air logo. Problem: The airline had gone under about a year earlier. The supplier told Washington City Paper that it stopped shipping the airline’s nuts “before Independence Air went out of business.” A spokesman for the Peanut Council told City Paper that to prevent rancidity, the recommended shelf life of a foil bag of out-of-shell peanuts was “about three months.”

Others could be viewed as a mix of fact and opinion:

$25: Price Snyder charged for a special group of standing-room-only tickets at FedExField in 2008. The cheap tickets were linked to the high-priced suites; lobbying watchdogs said Snyder was merely attempting to skirt congressional gift limits. Damning evidence: A team brochure for instructing ticket sales personnel to explain lobbying loopholes to suite customers. Snyder denied the charge. SRO tickets now sell for $152.50, with no mention of lobbying in the sales pitch.

Gates, Bill: Formerly world’s richest man. But he’s not as rich as he would be had he not done business with Snyder. One of Six Flags’ biggest stockholders, Gates had 10,210,600 shares worth about $122 million in early 2006, when Snyder began putting his marketing team in place. They were worth $0—zilch, zip, nada—by the time Snyder was tossed off the board last year. “Bill Gates gives away more money than anybody, and his main cause is malaria,” said a representative of Resilient Capital Management, a hedge fund and Six Flags investor, which sued to have Snyder removed from the company for fiduciary irresponsibility. “That was money that could have gone to save kids from malaria.”

A lawsuit might be viewed as a transparent effort to bleed the small newspaper financially with an expensive defamation action. I am not sure whether Synder would be helped or hurt by a local jury of Redskins fans who are pretty sore about poor record of the team and have never been overjoyed with Synder.
The article includes a photo of Synder that has been obviously doctored to add horns and facial hair. That picture is hardly the stuff for a false light charge and would be used to reinforce the opinion aspect of the piece.

Some of the content of the article is clearly factual, but other parts are clearly hyperbolic and opinion. That could raise the type of issue that was address in Ollman v. Evans 750 F.2d 970 (D.C. Cir. 1984). In that case, Novak and Evans wrote a scathing piece that stated in part:

[t]he proposal to name Bertell Ollman, Professor at New York University, as department head has generated wrong-headed debate. Politicians who jumped in to oppose Ollman simply for his Marxist philosophy have received a justifiable going-over from defenders of academic freedom in the press and the university. Academic Prince Valiants seem arrayed against McCarythite [sic] know-nothings . . . But neither side approaches the crucial question: not Ollman’s beliefs, but his intentions. His candid writings avow his desire to use the classroom as an instrument for preparing what he calls ‘the revolution.’ Whether this is a form of indoctrination that could transform the real function of a university and transcend limits of academic freedom is a concern to academicians who are neither McCarthyite nor know-nothing.”

The column goes on to take apart Ollman’s past writings, including what Ollman stated were clear misrepresentations. The court acknowledges that “the most troublesome statement in the column . . . [is] an anonymous political science professor is quoted as saying: ‘Ollman has no status within the profession but is a pure and simple activist.'”

Ollman sued but Judge Kenneth Starr wrote for the D.C. Circuit in finding no basis for defamation:

The reasonable reader who peruses an Evans and Novak column on the editorial or Op-Ed page is fully aware that the statements found there are not “hard” news like those printed on the front page or elsewhere in the news sections of the newspaper. Readers expect that columnists will make strong statements, sometimes phrased in a polemical manner that would hardly be considered balanced or fair elsewhere in the newspaper. National Rifle Association v. Dayton Newspaper, Inc., supra, 555 F.Supp. at 1309. That proposition is inherent in the very notion of an “Op-Ed page.” Because of obvious space limitations, it is also manifest that columnists or commentators will express themselves in condensed fashion without providing what might be considered the full picture. Columnists are, after all, writing a column, not a full-length scholarly article or a book. This broad understanding of the traditional function of a column like Evans and Novak will therefore predispose the average reader to regard what is found there to be opinion.

A reader of this particular Evans and Novak column would also have been influenced by the column’s express purpose. The columnists laid squarely before the reader their interest in ending what they deemed a “frivolous” debate among politicians over whether Mr. Ollman’s political beliefs should bar him from becoming head of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Instead, the authors plainly intimated in the column’s lead paragraph that they wanted to spark a more appropriate debate within academia over whether Mr. Ollman’s purpose in teaching was to indoctrinate his students. Later in the column, they openly questioned the measure or method of Professor Ollman’s scholarship. Evans and Novak made it clear that they were not purporting to set forth definitive conclusions, but instead meant to ventilate what in their view constituted the central questions raised by Mr. Ollman’s prospective appointment.

Ironically, football seems to generate libel actions. The public figure standard was established in Curtis Publishing v. Butts (1967). The case involved a March 23, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post alleging that former University of Georgia football coach Wallace Butts conspired with University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to fix a 1962 football game in Alabama’s favor. In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote a concurrence that extended the ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan on public officials to public figures. He found the same reasons for applying the higher standard to public officials as present in cases involving public figures:

[I]t is plain that, although they are not subject to the restraints of the political process, “public figures,” like “public officials,” often play an influential role in ordering society. And surely, as a class, these “public figures” have as ready access as “public officials” to mass media of communication, both to influence policy and to counter criticism of their views and activities. Our citizenry has a legitimate and substantial interest in the conduct of such persons, and freedom of the press to engage in uninhibited debate about their involvement in public issues and events is as crucial as it is in the case of “public officials.” The fact that they are not amenable to the restraints of the political process only underscores the legitimate and substantial nature of the interest, since it means that public opinion may be the only instrument by which society can attempt to influence their conduct.

Synder would clearly be a public figure and would have to navigate around barriers presented by the actual malice standard and the exception for opinion under defamation law. While the newspaper would be facing significant litigation costs, he would be facing significant risks during discovery where he would have to address each of these allegations in deposition. Truth is a defense to defamation and that means that the scope of discovery in this case would be exceptionally broad.

Here is the Washington City Paper article.

Source: Washington Post

20 thoughts on “Redskins Owner Threatens Newspaper With Libel Suit After Unflattering Article”

  1. The City Paper has noted that “Redskins general counsel David Donovan made very clear, in a letter he sent to the investment group that owns our parent company last November, that this lawsuit would be expensive to fight. ‘Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper, Donovan wrote.”

    This case is a lot like the New York Times v. Sullivan (376 U.S. 254 (1964)case, itself, which held that public figures must show actual malice to recover in defamation actions. In that case, the Alabama official were very determined to shut down the Times with a massive damage judgment, and to chill all other newspapers from reporting the civil rights movement. The Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment.

    At this time, City Paper has announced a legal defense fund. In my view, this is clearly a First Amendment defense fund. Regardless of the merits of Dan Snyder’s gripes (and he has been invited to respond in the pages of the City Paper itself), he should not be allowed to use the government’s tort liability system to bludgeon a free press into submission.

    Ps, Snyder’s $100 million dollar nose tackle Haynesworth (who proved himself worthless on the field in 2010) has been accused (and remains innocent unless proven guilty) of punching out a driver in a road rage incident. Haynesworth was gentle as a lamb in games last season. He could have used a little road rage back then.

    Snyder’s lawsuit sounds in road rage.

  2. Andy G:

    It’s called California pleading. Sue ’em all let the judge sort ’em out. It doesn’t work here in Va or New York but, hey , you got glitz representation with Shapiro’s firm. Maybe he got the pleading from LegalZoom.

  3. I looked at the complaint (available online), and a few things I just don’t get. He sued Atalaya Capital, the parent company of the corporation that publishes The City Paper. Normally, shareholders are not liable for tortious conduct of a corporaton. It is possible to “pierce the corporate veil”, but depending on the state, you’ve got to show some facts to support that, and its usually difficult to do. Based on the facts in the complaint, I don’t see how Atalaya stays in the case. They didn’t write the article, or publish it, or distribute the paper, and the writer of the article was not an employee of Atalaya. There’s no allegation that Atalaya management knew of the offending article before it was published.

    Also, his arguments about anti-Semitism are frivolous. He has had little involvement with the DC area Jewish community up to now.

    I can, however, understand why Snyder would want to litigate this case in New York. Jurrors don’t know him as well up there!

  4. Vince/mespo,

    I read your links on this story last night before going to bed.

    It’s really hard to go to sleep while laughing.

  5. VT:

    Thanks for the post. The letter from Redskins general counsel is a hoot. I’s here:

    Anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitic? Really? Really? And he even throws in an expert on the topic to convince the reader — Rabbi Cooper! Case closed, man. I also enjoyed the rhetorical questions prefaced by the always persuasive, “How would you react?” I might answer, “Not like you, my overly sensitive friend.”

    My favorite threat is that the litigation would fold the paper. How do you spell insurance in your world there counselor? And to top it all off, the threat of all threats: “I’m so mad that I want you to call my client right this minute and work it all out. I don’t care if he’s a public figure and we need prove actual malice or reckless indifference to the truth. We’ve talked to other lawyers who said this is a lay down.”


    This lawyer needs a course in effective “shots over the bow,” and a maybe a casual reading of Falwell v. Flint. This whole episode’s a parody.

  6. eniobob:

    “George W. Bush Worried That America Is Becoming ‘Nativist’”


    That’s “naivest” … America is becoming the “naivest,” you ninny. Given his election to office, his statement is sound.

  7. Jennifer Petkov is looking for a new neighborhood … perhaps she can be persuaded to move to Dan Snyder’s street.

  8. VT:

    “This could cause a casual reader to conclude you are the most malign and incompetent owner in the history of organized sports, which is completely unfair.”ROTFLMAO!!

  9. If Snyder manages his case like he does his football team, I predict a loss, followed by a disgruntled lead attorney that Snyder got from a firm that drubbed him previously. I also suspect he will then hire a new firm and overpay them, only to lose again in the postseason … er, post-trial.

  10. Vince Treacy:

    Giants and Jets fans? Hell he has to contend with Redskins fans first. The Giants and Jets fans would want him to keep screwing up the Redskins and give him a judgement.

  11. Prediction.

    The first, but not the last, bad thing that will happen to Snyder will be City Paper’s demand for a jury trial on the issue of money damages, putting the fate of the billionaire boy-wonder owner of the hated Washington Redskins into the eager hands of lifelong Giants and Jets fans.


  12. Snyder is beyond stupid. The suit was filed late Wednesday. AP reports that “Snyder filed the lawsuit against the weekly paper and its parent company, Atalaya Capital management LP, in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday. The suit seeks at least $1 million in damages for each of the two causes of action, plus punitive damages.”

    Get the popcorn. Let the revels begin. This will be worth millions to the comedians and humorists.

    Here is Gene Weingarten’s take,an “open letter” to the Danster in today’s Washington Post. Brace selves for raucous laughter:

  13. This case not only smells of loser for Snyder, given the breadth of potential discovery and his already weak PR stand with the community, it could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Comments are closed.