Redskins owner Dan Snyder dropped his closely-watched defamation lawsuit against the Washington City Paper over the weekend, the night before the team's first game of the season and two days after Snyder was quoted as saying he had never read the full article in question.
The paper, which had stood by the article and writer Dave McKenna, is claiming a victory for the First Amendment, while a team spokesman says the suit was dropped because the paper purportedly "admitted" that parts of the article had stretched the truth.
Snyder’s attorneys filed a stipulation (PDF) Saturday evening in District of Columbia Superior Court to voluntarily dismiss the case. The dismissal means the court will not weigh in on Snyder's challenge to Washington's law barring strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs.
City Paper’s lead counsel, Seth Berlin of Washington’s Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, said Monday morning that dismissal talks had started recently and that the stipulation was worked out a few days ago.
“This was always a case that had thin merits legally," Berlin said. "The paper is obviously extremely pleased that for whatever reasons Mr. Snyder saw the light."
Attorneys for Snyder were not available for comment Monday morning. Snyder’s legal team included Patricia Glaser and Jill Basinger of Glaser, Weil, Fink, Jacobs, Howard, Avchen & Shapiro in Los Angeles, and Richard Smith and Jacqueline Chaffee from the Washington office of McDermott Will & Emery.
In a statement, team spokesman Tony Wyllie said the case was dropped because the paper had “admitted that certain assertions contained in the article…were, in fact, unintended by the defendants to be read literally as true.”
"Therefore, we see nothing further to be gained at this time through continuing the lawsuit. We prefer to focus on the coming football season and the business at hand,” Wyllie said.
The paper had denied any wrongdoing.
The case began in February, when Snyder sued (PDF) the paper’s parent company, Creative Loafing Inc., and its investors over the November 2010 article, “The Cranky Redskins Fans’ Guide to Dan Snyder,” in February in New York State Supreme Court for New York County. He moved the lawsuit to Washington in April citing “legal reasons,” dropping the investors as defendants and adding the paper itself and McKenna.
While offering closure to both sides, the dismissal leaves a dispute over the city’s relatively new law barring strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, unresolved. The paper had moved to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP law, which offers defendants a faster road to dismissal if they believe they’re being sued over protected speech. Snyder challenged the statute’s legal underpinnings, arguing that city legislators lacked authority to change court procedures.
Lawyers for the District of Columbia had filed Sept. 1 to intervene and defend the law. A coalition of free speech groups and media organizations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union for the Nation’s Capital, also filed an amicus brief (PDF) supporting City Paper and the anti-SLAPP law. A motion hearing was scheduled for Oct. 14.
Bruce Brown of Washington’s Baker & Hostetler, who was also part of the defense team, said that while the court wasn’t able to weigh in on the anti-SLAPP law, he thinks it still likely played a role in having the case end now.
“It’s a new and vital tool for defamation defendants in the district,” Brown said. “Having the hearing scheduled and having the intervention of the District to defend the law I think was instrumental in putting Mr. Snyder in a position where he was best to back down.”
Another twist came two days before the dismissal, when Snyder was quoted in a Sept. 8 interview with the New York Times saying that he hadn’t read the full article but had “heard all the details.” Brown said he expects the statement would have come up in future briefs or oral arguments.
“You read that interview and you can’t but think that he did not act responsibly in bringing this lawsuit,” Brown said. “I’ve never heard of a libel plaintiff to ever make an acknowledgement like that.”
Although a win on the anti-SLAPP motion could have forced Snyder to pay the paper’s legal costs, City Paper Editor Michael Schaffer said it wasn’t worth the additional time or money. Schaffer said he wasn’t sure what the final bill will be, but that he was grateful to supporters who gave $34,308 to the paper’s legal defense fund.
“For a small publication that’s been through a lot of financial trouble in the last few years, it’s never easy or fun to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit that includes your name and $2 million,” Schaffer said. “We were really lucky to have had readers who understood what the stakes were here.”
Schaffer said he’s “also really proud that it is over in a way that has us standing up for our journalism and our values.”
“He didn’t get an apology. He didn’t get a correction,” Schaffer said. “He got the same consistent thing we have said from the beginning, that our story never said the allegedly libelous things he claimed.”