A small newspaper in northern Wisconsin may be sued out of existence because a Republican lawmaker in the state is continuing to bring defamation litigation against it, over the publication’s decision nearly two years ago to publish a story about him using a derogatory and hateful slur against gay people.
During a county board hearing in 2021 on promoting diversity and inclusion in Wausau, Wisconsin, State Sen. Cory Tomczyk (R), who had not yet been elected to his current position at the time, spoke out against the measure. Several community members present at the meeting reported hearing Tomczyk call a 13-year-old teenager a “fag” during the event, which The Wausau Pilot & Review reported on in a subsequent article.
Tomczyk sued the newspaper for defamation, claiming he didn’t utter the slur and that The Pilot & Review shouldn’t have published the article because journalists for the paper weren’t present at the meeting. State Judge Scott Corbett subsequently dismissed Tomczyk’s complaint earlier this year, finding that Tomczyk, who owns a recycling company and had previously served in local government, was a public figure and therefore, subject to a higher standard for claiming defamation. He would need to prove the long-established standard of “actual malice,” which requires showing that a publication knew what it published was false or was negligent in publishing a story.
Three individuals who gave depositions during the hearings also indicated under oath that they had heard Tomczyk use the slur during the 2021 meeting. Tomczyk himself admitted in a deposition that he used the word occasionally.
Shereen Siewert, the founder and editor of The Pilot & Review, said that the lawsuit cost her and the paper around $150,000 in legal bills. Tomczyk has indicated that he will continue pursuing the lawsuit, and will appeal the judge’s decision — meaning that the legal fees for the paper will continue to mount, possibly causing the paper, which has a staff of four, to close in the near future.
“Every time I open the mail, I want to throw up,” Siewert said to The New York Times, discussing the many bills she has received due to the litigation.
While his lawsuit is likely to fail, Tomczyk, a far right lawmaker who won election to his gerrymandered senate district in part on a platform against rights for transgender students and a promise to instill so-called “traditional values” in the state, could succeed in punishing the paper over reporting that he, an elected official, disagreed with, by stifling – in a roundabout way – the free press protections that newspapers are generally afforded, due to the legal costs the paper is struggling to pay.
It’s a disturbing pattern that’s happening elsewhere, The Times noted in its reporting, as other lawmakers across the country are employing the same strategy as Tomczyk appears to be using: that is, either threatening to sue or following through with lawsuits to prevent or punish reporting that puts them in a negative light.
“I think we’ve got a situation now where these lawsuits are so pervasive, and the claims for damages are so astronomical, that chills,” Laura Lee Prather, chair of the media law practice group at Haynes Boone, an international law firm, told The Times. “A chill not just on the journalists or the news organization that’s on the receiving end of the lawsuit, but on anyone else who might be considering writing on the same subject.”
Thirty-two states and Washington D.C. currently have laws against such anti-press and anti-speech strategies, which are often referred to as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Wisconsin, however, isn’t one of them, which will allow Tomczyk to continue pursuing his litigation against The Pilot & Review possibly for the next several years as he continues to appeal the original ruling.
Briefly, we wanted to update you on where Truthout stands this month.
To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.
To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.
We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.
We’ve launched a campaign to raise $44,000 in the next 7 days. Please consider making a donation today.