I bring good news: top-notch work by generous and dedicated lawyers has produced a free speech victory in Texas.
Last year I lit the Popehat Signal seeking help for J. Todd DeShong, a blogger and AIDS activist. DeShong, a longtime critic of the nutty and conspiratorial junk science occasionally directed at AIDS issues, ran afoul of Clark Baker, an ex-cop and full-blown AIDS denialist who offers "expert" "witness" services. You may recall my description of Baker's phone call to DeShong's mother:
I interviewed Mr. DeShong's mother, a sweet lady with a spine of Texas steel. She told me about how Mr. Baker called her out of the blue and ranted at her. Mr. Baker angrily denounced her son, and told her that, as a police officer, he knew about dangerous people, and that Ms. DeShong should fear that her son would kill her in her sleep. He also threatened that he was arranging for doctors Mr. DeShong had criticized to sue him for defamation. Ms. Deshong pointed out that such a suit would bring no joy; Todd DeShong is not a rich man. "But you have money, right? You have a house, right?" responded Mr. Baker, implying that he might put her assets at risk. "He thought he could intimidate me. He didn't know who he was dealing with," said Ms. DeShong, who sounds like a good person to have at your back.
Baker sued DeShong in federal court in Texas over DeShong's criticism of Baker's AIDS-denialist rhetoric and his "expert" "witness" service the HIV Innocence Group. Baker claimed that DeShong's criticism was not only defamation, but violation of the HIV Innocence Group's trademark rights in its name. Baker's motive may have been mixed: he may have wanted to silence DeShong, but he may also have wanted to use the federal suit to pursue his conspiracy theories about AIDS researchers. I cannot say what his lawyer was thinking, if he was.
Such federal litigation is ruinously expensive to defend; DeShong couldn't afford a defense and Baker might have succeeded in silencing critics through abuse of the legal system. Fortunately, lawyers who care about free speech rode into the breach: D. Gill Sperlein, Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, Gary P. Krupkin, and Neal A. Hoffman filed motions to dismiss (attacking the thoroughly specious trademark claims) and a strong motion under Texas' relatively new anti-SLAPP statute.
Last week the dream team won. United States District Judge Sam R. Cummings granted DeShong's motion to dismiss the trademark claims, and then refused to hear the state law claims and dismissed them. The court's ruling held the line on a key free speech concept: using a company's name to criticize it does not violate the company's trademark in the name. Baker had claimed that sites like "HIV Innocence Group Truth" violated trademark rights and were part of an effort to destroy him by discrediting him. But Judge Cummings pointed out "[n]o reasonable person would take one look at DeShong's website and believe that Baker authorized its content." Moreover, the court explained, trademark law doesn't protect a company from criticism. The Lanham Act protects a competitor from profiting from the misuse of another company's trademark; it does not protect a company from vigorous and even ruinous criticism employing its name. Judge Cummings also rejected Baker's argument that DeShong violated trademark rights by using a URL likely to dominate search results for "HIV Innocence Group." That theory, too, would have allowed the Bakers of the world to abuse the Lanham Act to prevent criticism.
I suspect Paul Alan Levy, who has done a lot of important work protecting "gripe sites" and critics from bogus trademark claims, had a strong hand in winning this issue.
Having dismissed the federal trademark claim, Judge Cummings declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims like defamation, finding that state issues (like application of Texas' anti-SLAPP statute) would predominate over federal issues. Therefore he didn't reach the anti-SLAPP motion. That's an increasingly common approach by federal judges in such cases; it's what the judge did in the censorious Naffe case in which I was co-counsel.
Baker has appealed, and could conceivably re-file his censorious screed in Texas state court. If he does, the dream team's work on the anti-SLAPP motion is already done, and I suspect Baker will find no joy before a Texas state judge. I'd lay very good odds that Baker will lose his appeal. Meanwhile, I hope that DeShong's legal team seeks and recovers legal fees from Baker based on winning the Lanham Act claim. The suit was contemptible and represents exactly the sort of case in which federal courts should use their statutory power to award attorney fees to deter such abuse of the system.
Please join me in expressing admiration and thanks to Gil, Paul, Neal, and Gary. Their generosity with their time and talents didn't just help DeShong's free speech: it helped yours. Contributions like theirs are essential to defending free speech principles in a broken system that allows unscrupulous clients and lawyers to silence dissent by inflicting ruinous defense costs. They are heroes.