The Defamation Suit Against Rachel Maddow
Bradlee Dean is a Christian preacher and metal music performer who calls homosexuality an “abomination”; blames the “homosexual agenda” for America’s problems; and claims to seek the restoration of Judeo-Christian and family values. Recently, Dean sued television host and commentator Rachel Maddow, NBC Universal, and MSNBC for defamation based on two segments that Maddow had aired about Dean, and additional comments that Maddow had made about Dean on her show. (The material on Dean in the two segments, which together constitute a single YouTube video, starts at 1:58.) Dean also sued the Minnesota Independent and its reporter, but here, I’ll focus on the Maddow claims.
On April 16, Maddow’s attorneys moved to get Dean’s defamation case dismissed now, at the very beginning of the litigation, under D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP law. (SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation; Anti-SLAPP laws were passed to address the problem of frivolous defamation suits, the real motive of which was to silence the speaker.)
Based on the allegations in Dean’s complaint, Maddow should prevail on her Anti-SLAPP motion.
Dean claims in his complaint that Maddow defamed him by making the following statements: (1) Dean and his organization You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International (“YCR”) advocated the execution of gays; (2) Dean and YCR advocated using foreign enemies against America because Christians aren’t doing the job by killing gays and lesbians; and (3) Dean and YCR are “bloodthirsty” and have called for the “upping of the bloodshed” in America’s culture wars.
Maddow’s Abridged Version of What Dean Said on the Radio, and Her Later Comments About Dean
The defamation issue here is a bit complicated because Maddow broadcast an abridged version of Dean’s remarks, as follows (Maddow’s omissions are in bold.):
Muslims are calling for the execution for homosexuals in America, this was just released yesterday and it shows you that they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible, the Judeo Christian God. They seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do. Because these people are livid about enforcing their laws, they know homosexuality is an abomination. And I continually reach out to the homosexual communities on this radio show, and I warn them, which ones love? Here you have Obama condemning it behind the backs of the homosexuals but to their faces he’s promoting it. I say this to my gay friends out there the ones that continuously nitpick everything I say. Hollywood is promoting immorality and the God of the Heavens in Jesus names is warning you to flee from the wrath to come, yet you have Muslims calling for your execution. If America won’t enforce the laws, God will raise up a foreign enemy to do just that’s what you’re seeing in America today. Read Leviticus 26 America.
Maddow also ran Dean’s later disclaimer stating that he has “never and will never call for the execution of homosexuals,” although Dean takes issue with the querying tone of voice in which Maddow read the disclaimer.
In addition, Maddow reportedly called Dean (along with Michele Bachmann) part of the “bloodthirsty” contingent of social conservatism, and characterized Dean as having called for the “upping of the bloodshed.”
Evaluating the Libel Claims That Dean Has Brought Against Maddow: The Abridgment
There is no question as to whether Dean actually said what Maddow claimed he said. Thus, the only possible argument grounding a libel lawsuit, here, would have to come from (1) Maddow’s abridgment of Dean’s lengthy statement, (2) her characterization of Dean as belonging to the “bloodthirsty” part of social conservatism, or (3) her characterization of Dean as calling for an “upping of the bloodshed.”
Regarding the abridgement of Dean’s statement, set forth above, the abridged statement did omit some remarks about Dean’s reaching out to homosexual communities and persons. Yet those remarks simply pale in comparison to Dean’s expression, in the same set of remarks, of admiration for Muslims who call for the execution of homosexuals—calling them “more moral” than American Christians.
If someone thinks it’s moral to call for your execution, it hardly softens the bite to know that he’d also like to offer you community outreach and has done so to people like you in the past. Thus, while some defamation claims can be based on misleading abridgments of texts, this surely isn’t one of them.
Indeed, as Dean himself is an American Christian, his remarks seem to imply that Dean sees those Muslims who call for the execution of gay people as even more moral than he himself is. If so, then he’s not only applauding those who call for the killing of gay people, he’s actually putting them on a pedestal. Again, no amount of outreach to gay people could ever soften the sting of that position.
Granted, Dean may see Maddow’s abridgement of his words as unfair in what it left out. In particular, his defamation complaint, in paragraph 14, claims that he and YCR “stated publicly on many occasions that they did not advocate the executions of gays, but that to the contrary gays should be loved as the Children of God.” He clearly thinks Maddow should have mentioned this in her broadcast.
Even assuming that this is true, however, it only means that Dean made two contradictory statements—one suggesting that calling for gay people’s execution is moral, and one saying that gay people should be loved as the Children of God.
Faced with that contradiction, it was eminently reasonable for Maddow—if she even knew about the “loved as the children of God” stance—to decide that that stance was the disingenuous one of the two.
The “Bloodthirsty” Statement
Moving on to the other comments Maddow made, I believe that it is fair, based on Dean’s admiration for those who call for the execution of gay people, to call him “bloodthirsty,” especially as the word “bloodthirsty” is metaphorical, and can have a number of meanings. And, one such meaning would surely be “welcoming violence,” which is exactly what Dean did when he expressed admiration for Muslims who call for the execution of gay people.
At worst, then, Maddow in using the word “bloodthirsty” indulged here in what libel law calls “rhetorical hyperbole”—fanciful language that might be a bit exaggerated or poetic, but is not properly deemed to be grounds for a defamation suit.
Defamation law deals with statements of fact, not literary devices such as metaphors and similes—which can be apt or inapt, and poorly-fitting or well-fitting, but are no more true or false than, say, a poem or song is.
The “Upping of the Bloodshed” Statement
Finally, Maddow’s reported characterization of Dean as calling for an “upping of the bloodshed” poses a slightly more difficult question. As I noted just above, Dean expressed admiration for Muslims who call for the executions of gay people, deeming them “more moral” than even American Christians like himself. Thus, Dean certainly seems to welcome whatever bloodshed will come at the hands of the anonymous Muslims to whom he’s referring.
But does Dean also want more such bloodshed, as Maddow suggested by her “upping” comment? You could read Dean’s comments about God raising up a foreign enemy as seeking more violence, or as just predicting it.
Still, the subtlety here—the difference between applauding violence, which Dean surely did, and seeking more of it, which he arguably did not quite do—is probably too fine for defamation law to parse. And no court, I believe, would entertain such hair-splitting for long, let alone award damages to Dean on such a slim legal reed.
In the end, the goal of libel law is to remedy genuine reputational damage. And once a person has voluntarily taken the reputational hit associated with applauding calls to execute innocent people simply because they are gay, in the eyes of most people, he doesn’t have much further to fall. Thus, it’s probably Dean himself who has most harmed his own reputation here. Moreover, Maddow’s reading of Dean’s statement on air—despite Dean’s qualms about her tone—should remedy some substantial part of any reputational damage Maddow’s words inflicted on Dean.
Ultimately, I don’t believe any court is likely to entertain this suit for very long, although it will be interesting to see if the Anti-SLAPP motion is granted, or if a later motion disposes of the case.
Either way, Dean—who openly applauds hate crimes perpetrated on innocent victims as moral, then turns around and asks a court to protect him from mere criticism of his views—may well find that his plea falls on deaf ears.
JULIE HILDEN practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. She is the author of a memoir, The Bad Daughter and a novel Three. She can be reached through her website.
This column originally appeared in Justia‘s Verdict.