I previously wrote about the defamation claims filed by former Rep. Katie Hill has lost a lawsuit against her husband and a variety of other people, including the Daily Mail for reporting on her sex scandal involving a former aide. I stated that the legal basis for the lawsuit against the media was highly dubious and that the underlying stories were protected under the First Amendment as matters of public interest. As expected, the case against the Daily Mail was thrown out by Los Angeles Judge Yolanda Orozco on First Amendment grounds.
In 2019, former Hill resigned from Congress after the disclosure of sexual relations with a staff member. The scandal involved 22-year-old staffer Morgan Desjardins who had a three-way relationship Hill and her then-husband Kenny Heslep that began shortly after she started working for Hill in 2017. The affair reportedly ended in the summer of 2019.
Ordinarily, the media and various public interest groups would have been outraged and unrelenting in their “MeToo” coverage, particularly with a young staffer recently out of college. In the case of Hill, however, media outlets like MSNBC picked up on Hill’s claim that she was subjected to a “double standard” and a “misogynistic culture.”
As I stated in the earlier column:
It is claim against the media parties that concerns me the most in this action. The 41-page lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress and violation of state law for distribution of intimate personal material without Hill’s consent, against defendants Salem Media Group Inc., Mail Media, Inc., writer Jennifer Van Laar (the deputy managing editor of Redstate.com), and Joseph Messina, the host of “The Real Side” Radio Show, as well as other unnamed individuals. Van Laar’s work also appeared in the Daily Mail (which is named as a defendant).
Not only did the lawsuit threaten core media protections, but advanced (with the help of sympathetic media at CNN and MSNBC) a false narrative of Hill as a victim. It was astonishing to watch media support a politician claiming a double standard in being forced to resign — seeking an accommodation that was wisely denied to male colleagues in past scandals. Various male politicians from Sen. Bob Packwood to Rep. Trent Franks have resigned under such scandals. Sen. Al Franken resigned for acts that did not involve an actual sexual affair. Hill abused her position of power but somehow converted that abuse into a women’s rights issue. Hill sold that narrative and is now bizarrely treated by many as a victim.
That treatment stopped when she tried to make these arguments in court against the media. Hill was challenging the publishing of photos that included a picture of Hill naked holding a bong emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and a photo showing a tattoo of an Iron Cross resembling a Nazi symbol on her bikini line.
In dismissing the claims against the Daily Mail, Orozco ruled that
“the intimate images published by Defendant spoke to Plaintiff’s character and qualifications for her position, as they allegedly depicted Plaintiff with a campaign staffer whom she was alleged to have had a sexual affair with and appeared to show Plaintiff using a then-illegal drug and displaying a tattoo that was controversial because it resembled a white supremacy symbol that had become an issue during her congressional campaign.”
The court stated that obvious that such images are clearly related to a core matter of public interest in the scandal:
“Plaintiff’s argument that the images are not a matter of public concern because Defendant could have simply described the images rather than publishing them is unpersuasive, as the fact that information to be gleaned from an image may be disseminated in an alternative manner does not equate to a finding that the image itself is not a matter of public concern.”
There remain claims against RedState and Hill’s ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep.
Notably, the Daily Mail reported on the ruling by republishing the same photos.
This was the correct decision. It is notable however that the Daily Mail benefitted from our defamation standards, which are protective of journalists. As shown recently in the case involving Meghan Markle, the courts in Great Britain have precious few such protections. It is also notable that two figures lionized by the media on networks like MSNBC have launched frontal attacks on the media and its ability to report on newsworthy controversies.