by Josh Gerstein
NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.
First lady Melania Trump prevailed Friday in the first round of a $150 million libel suit she filed against a Maryland blogger over a report he published last summer about claims that Trump worked as a "high-end escort."
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sharon Burrell rejected arguments from lawyers for blogger Webster Tarpley to dismiss Trump's suit for failing to meet the "actual malice" standard for public figures. The judge also turned down Tarpley's effort to dismiss the suit under a Maryland law aimed at quickly shutting down bad-faith lawsuits intended to intimidate people speaking out on issues of public concern.
"The court finds the plaintiff has stated a claim for defamation," Burrell ruled after hearing arguments on the issue in a Rockville courtroom. "The court believes most people, when they hear the words 'high-end escort' that describes a prostitute. There could be no more defamatory statement than to call a woman a prostitute."
However, at the conclusion of a roughly two-hour-long hearing, it was unclear whether the first lady would be allowed to proceed against another, deeper-pocketed defendant in the Maryland suit--the New York-based corporate affiliate of London's Daily Mail newspaper. That outlet published a similar account to Tarpley's last August.
An attorney for Mail Media, Kelli Sager, argued Maryland was the wrong place for a New York resident like Trump to sue a New York company, Sager also disclosed that Melania Trump is also suing the parent company of the Daily Mail newspaper in a London court for libel over the same article that appeared on the Mail website.
Both Tarpley and the Mail retracted their articles after receiving complaints from Trump's lawyers.
A lawyer for Tarpley, Danielle Giroux, insisted that Tarpley wasn’t vouching for the truth of the allegations he aired, but simply publicizing the fact that there were rumors that had a potential to impact the presidential campaign.
“He did not say that Melania Trump was a high-class escort. What he said was there are rumors about that,” the attorney said. "He's writing about the rumors and that, itself, is newsworthy."
However, Trump attorney Charles Harder said it was evident from Tarpley’s post that he was endorsing the accuracy of the claims, particularly by referring to them as “widely known.”
"That's not how the law works. You can't print a rumor if it's not true and it damages or harms someone's reputation," the attorney said. "That is textbook defamation.
Harder also complained that Tarpley had done nothing to investigate the accuracy of what he was circulating. For example, the attorney said the blogger could or should have checked "a library of porn content" to see if Trump had appeared in pornography.
"You have to verify. You can't just say anything you want about someone when it's defamatory," Harder said.
Giroux said Harder was wrong on that point. She insisted journalists covering matters of public concern are entitled to publish facts they haven’t personally verified.
“A reporter does not have to publish only statements that he knows are true,” she said. "They are not required to do an investigation."
Burrell said Tarpley's bid to end the case under Maryland's Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation law (sometimes called a SLAPP law) failed because there was no indication the suit was brought in bad faith. The judge also seemed skeptical that such salacious claims were deserving of the highest level of legal protection given that Melania Trump was the wife of a candidate and not a candidate herself.
"The interests affected are arguably not that important because the plaintiff wasn't the one running for office," Burrell said.
Giroux also labeled as “rhetorical hyperbole” Tarpley’s claim that the escort rumors, the publication of nude modeling photos of Trump and other events led her to have a "mental breakdown" that drove her from the campaign trail.
“It’s the flourish reporters use so the way they present the facts isn’t so dry,” the lawyer explained.
The judge didn’t buy that, dismissing that argument as “word games.”
Burrell issued no immediate ruling on the Mail's bid to escape the Maryland suit, but she did halt discovery against the Mail--a signal that she's giving serious consideration to dismissing the Mail from the case.
The arguments on that point were highly technical, but Harder argued that the Mail website is viewed in Maryland 40 million times a year, giving Maryland courts jurisdiction over the libel dispute. He also said the Mail knows people from Maryland are registering on its site and leaving comments there.
However, the judge seemed concerned that Harder was suggesting Trump could have filed the case anywhere in the U.S.
Sager underscored that point. "It is essentially forum shopping," she said. "This is a free website."
Burrell tossed out a claim that Tarpley damaged Trump's current and prospective business deals. The judge said those allegations lacked detail, but she said she'd allow Trump's lawyers to refile them if they want.
Melania Trump showed up for an initial hearing in the case last month, but was not present in the courtroom Friday. The closest thing to celebrities there were Harder and Sager, two well-known Los Angeles litigators who often do battle in high-profile fights involving celebrities and the media.