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Free Speech Wins! SF Chronicle Writer Tom Stienstra Loses Lawsuit Against Trout Underground

Posted by Tom Chandler 11/26/2013

Judge throws out Outdoor writer Tom Stienstra's defamation lawsuit against fly fishing blog

chandler-defeatstom-stienstra (Amusing Dewey defeats Truman photo mashup courtesy an Underground reader)

 

This is the one we've been waiting for. Simply put, the First Amendment won. Blogging won. Freedom of Speech won. And yes, I won.

By contrast, the Chronicle's Outdoor Writer Tom Stienstra lost. And in more than simply legal terms.

That a journalist like Stienstra -- who has made a good living riding the coattails of the First Amendment -- would try to abridge someone else's First Amendment rights via a nuisance lawsuit is more than ironic.

It's damned disgraceful.

Fortunately, last week a Siskiyou County judge said "No" to Chronicle Outdoor Writer Tom Stienstra's $10,000 defamation lawsuit against the Trout Underground.

The judge did so because the suit didn't even clear the lowest hurdle -- it was filed approximately 2.5 years after the Statute of Limitations said Stienstra could file.

In other words, all of Stienstra's bullying letters, demands for $10,000 and so-clueless-as-to-be-amusing shtick in court amounted to the following:

Nothing.

Don't spend it all in one place, Mr. Stienstra.

My Day In Court

For those arriving in the middle of all this, here's the two-sentence summary. First, I published a short article about San Francisco Chronicle Outdoor Writer Tom Stienstra's arrest here.

Despite the fact the story is almost identical to the articles published in many of the state's largest newspapers, Stienstra wanted it taken down, and filed a defamation lawsuit in order to try and make that happen.

He lost. My one regret is that the court (correctly) dismissed Stienstra's suit because of the statute of limitations.

In other words, Stienstra had no standing to bring the suit, so there was no point in arguing the specifics of his defamation claims.

Ok, I win. Happy time. Winning is good.

(Readers with little to do and an interest in legalspeak can read a scan of the decision here.)

The only downside? I was eager to prove my article wasn't defamatory, and I never really got that chance.

Three newspaper editors, four newspaper reporters and three attorneys (two of whom are defamation experts) agreed my original article wasn't defamatory, but I wanted a judge to say it.

Even in victory there is loss.

Like Spinal Tap, But Legal

Sadly, facing Stienstra in court was even more disagreeable than receiving one of his ridiculously over-the-top letters.

He was clearly unprepared but seemed willing to bullshit his way through the appearance, and because he got to speak first, he whined for a good 30 minutes about all the damage my story had done -- without actually denying that he was arrested, or that several other similar stories (including the article in his own newspaper) remained online.

At one point, Stienstra astonishingly denied he was a public figure (which would make his defamation claim far easier). Only minutes later -- in a fit of boasting -- he contradicted himself.

For the record, Stienstra has written many books and newspaper columns and had his own radio show, and in no part of California's legal code does that allow you to claim you're not a public figure.

He also bizarrely claimed the Communications Decency Act applied, apparently unaware it has almost nothing to do with defamation law -- except the passage which actually protected me from liability for comments made by others on my site.

Bolstering your opponent's case isn't exactly a winning legal strategy.

Later, I was treated to the spectacle of Stienstra tying himself into a knot trying to explain why my story was libelous yet his own newspaper's arguably-more-damming story wasn't.

(Think "This one goes to 11.")

I could go on, but when you show up with a carefully prepared legal brief citing Fourth Circuit and Ninth Circuit precedents -- and your opponent's only response is to accuse you of "cherry picking" case cites -- you know you're not exactly playing in Perry Mason territory.

More Constitutionally Protected Opinion

My belief is that this whole mess was never about libel.

Instead, the Trout Underground's article about Mr. Stienstra's arrest was the only mention of his arrest appearing on the first page of Google results for "Tom Stienstra."

I believe Stienstra wanted it removed, and that the bullying letters and the lawsuit were designed to make the post disappear.

Unwittingly, Stienstra seems to have invoked The Streissand Effect, where trying to deep-six an old story calls new attention to it.

Today, this Lost Coast story on Stienstra's lawsuit also appears on the first page of Stienstra's Google results. And the Redding Record-Searchlight also ran an article about the suit (it's behind a paywall, so no link), and it's possible more articles are coming.

In other words, Stienstra didn't do himself any favors.

He put myself and my family through something of an ordeal (one of his "witnesses" inappropriately confronted my wife in a supermarket parking lot, adding a creepy dimension to an already irritating situation).

Happily, the First Amendment doesn't exist at Mr. Stienstra's leisure, given his difficulties differentiating between libel and speech he finds disagreeable.

The facts of the original post aren't much in question, and Stienstra's targeting of the Trout Underground -- instead of his own newspaper, or the SacBee, Fox News or Record-Searchlight -- suggests something other than a journalist's mentality.

More importantly, bloggers publishing news stories should not be singled out for legal bullying because they've earned good Google rankings and lack a legal staff.

By the same token, folding the tent whenever someone takes exception to what you've written is to open the door to further abuses of our free speech rights.

Insurance companies sometimes pay off meritless claims because it's cheaper than defending them, but all they've done is encourage more meritless claims.

I'd rather not see the same principle apply to online speech.

It's Over. Sorta.

California allows defendants to appeal small claims court rulings, but once the plaintiff loses, it's finished. In other words, unless Stienstra wants to jump off an even higher legal bridge, this is over.

Thanks to all who supported me in this free speech fight, including the L&&T, a trio of attorneys, the friend who endured my court appearance with me, those who felt this lawsuit was a hummer and said so publicly, and the assembled hordes of Undergrounders.

That this lawsuit happened at all is a shame; that it was initiated by a journalist is a damned disgrace.

See you washing his hands of Tom Stienstra and legal stuff in general, Tom Chandler.

UPDATE:

In the Redding Record-Searchlight story about the lawsuit's dismissal (behind a paywall, so you may not be able to access it), Stienstra is quoted as saying:

"He took a wild rumor and turned into a hate story. He lives in a world that only exists in his mind," Stienstra said in an email.

He said he may still file an injunction against Chandler to have him remove the post.

Can anyone else see the steam coming out of his ears? And thanks to the folks who are giving this some ink (and incoming Google links):

Arizona Wanderings

Sipping Emergers

Bruce Ross' Blog

Bonefish on the Brain

Lost Coast Outpost

More to come.

AuthorPicture

Tom Chandler

As the author of the decade leading fly fishing blog Trout Underground, Tom believes that fishing is not about measuring the experience but instead of about having fun. As a staunch environmentalist, he brings to the Yobi Community thought leadership on environmental and access issues facing us today.

77 comments
[…] nothing wrong. I was sued by convicted felon Keith Gilabert for reporting on his hedge-fund fraud. Tom Chandler, an outdoor blogger, was sued by the San Francisco Chronicle’s outdoor writer, Tom Stienstra, for being one of many people to report on Stienstra’s arrest for marijuana […]
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Yep, Mr. Stienstra has a lost a fair amount of ground with this whole train wreck (there are now two stories on Google's first page about the bust/lawsuit, and two more on page two). If this bullshit continues, I'm considering publishing every threatening email, letter and court document I have, and let the public decide who is right.
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You'd think a "famous" writer and his grammatically challenged side-kick blogger pal would both realize by now that the most effective means to make this whole thing disappear is to.... do nothing. That way, there'd be nothing to write about. If they'd just go on blogging/writing/working/reporting, the new work would move this almost-four-year-old story to the nether regions of google - meaning page ... more 2 and beyond. How is it that anyone who writes - even as a side-line - doesn't realize this by now? Instead, TU readers may get to follow any manic-depressive-smoke-fueled-semi-literate follow-up attempts, which will be reported here, forwarded from alarmed email recipients, picked up by other sympathetic bloggers and continue on indefinitely, keeping the whole pathetic mess on google page 1. Excellent!
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DarrellKuni: Steinstra fishes Tupperware. When Stienstra loses in court, he sends a nasty, threatening email to the winner's wife. More to come on this one.
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Steinstra fishes Tupperware.
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I'm sorry you had to deal with that but thank you for defending free speech. I am glad to have true patriots standing up for the rights of man.
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Graham Moran: Glad to hear that this came out the way it did. I think I will be writing a post on our First Amendment rights as bloggers. When I am done I will let you all know. I plan on writing a similar post for my writing blog. Let me know when yours is live.
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Matt S: Congrats Tom. Really heartened to hear that you came out on top. Your fighting the good fight is encourages the rest of us to do the same. Thanks. Matt Thanks. Let's hope it's over.
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Ark ark. I only wish a few of the Undergrounders could have witnessed the court proceedings. My readers wouldn't believe some of the weirder stuff unless they saw it themselves.
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SmellsLikeFish: I wonder if the Chronic, I mean Chronicle will bother covering it. I’m sure they’re a bit conflicted facing publishing the second story to make their own boy look like a complete ass. Sadly, they appear to have avoided the whole issue. Clearly, Stienstra generates a lot of traffic for them.
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Glad to hear that this came out the way it did. I think I will be writing a post on our First Amendment rights as bloggers. When I am done I will let you all know.
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Orvis trivia challenge prizes. Everyone here already has a small stream book, but we have more than one small stream guru. Duh.
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Congrats Tom. Really heartened to hear that you came out on top. Your fighting the good fight is encourages the rest of us to do the same. Thanks. Matt
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" the friend who endured my court appearance with me." That would be me. More interestingly was the pre-courtroom trip to the boy's room. I was pushed to the side of my urinal by a small, well dressed man. Not physically pushed , but socially. Thought he was gonna shake my other hand. Come to find out this fella was none other than Tattoo. You know, Ricardo Montalban's side-kick. "Bozz, bozz, zee ... more plane!". None other. On the stand, Tattoo, for the record, testified that he had a marijuana card. Big deal.
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I wonder if the Chronic, I mean Chronicle will bother covering it. I'm sure they're a bit conflicted facing publishing the second story to make their own boy look like a complete ass.
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This from Moldy Chum too
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UPDATE: In the Redding Record-Searchlight story about the lawsuit's dismissal (behind a paywall, so you may not be able to access it), Stienstra is quoted as saying: "He took a wild rumor and turned into a hate story. He lives in a world that only exists in his mind," Stienstra said in an email. ... more

He said he may still file an injunction against Chandler to have him remove the post.

I don't believe Mr. Stienstra is enjoying the verdict. And thanks to the folks who are giving this some ink (and incoming Google links):

Arizona Wanderings

Sipping Emergers

Bruce Ross' Blog

Bonefish on the Brain

Lost Coast Outpost

More to come.
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Arizona Wanderings: Liability insurance? What’s that? An even million then.
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The Albino: Thanksgiving haiku for Tom Steinstra (written in the North American 5-7-5 syllable form as opposed to the traditional Japanese form) Bearded blowhard lost Toking meds right before court Dude don’t fish no how The Albino: Thanksgiving haiku for Tom Steinstra (written in the North American 5-7-5 syllable form as opposed to the traditional Japanese form) Bearded blowhard lost Toking ... more meds right before court Dude don’t fish no how A poem. Excellent.
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Andy: Yay! I’ll go fishing to celebrate. That, I believe, is the proper response. Hug a trout (the fish, not the irritating guide) for me.
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fishskicanoe: The good guys win again. Quick someone post something depressing, I think I’m starting to feel optimistic. Well, there's a 50/50 chance todays turkey will turn out kinda dry.
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Dave: Awesome! Now back to loving trout! :-) That's beasticy, and even my sketchy belief system (and the Communication Decency Act) forbids it. Pervert.
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Victor: “I’m changing career course just a bit”Oh no say it isn’t so A real job,or maybe a ????? No. Less consulting and management surrounding my clients' online lives, more writing.
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David: The stress of having a lawsuit hanging over your head is stressful. Yes, it is. Things now feel a little less frozen. And maybe M2 will go to college after all. Yes to your other question (two days ago). A picture coming soon.
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I believe your comment isn't a statement of fact. As opinion, it is protected speech, so "mad-dog" is fine with me, though it certainly feels a bit harsh on mad-dogs.
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Thanksgiving haiku for Tom Steinstra (written in the North American 5-7-5 syllable form as opposed to the traditional Japanese form) Bearded blowhard lost Toking meds right before court Dude don't fish no how
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Yay! I'll go fishing to celebrate.
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The good guys win again. Quick someone post something depressing, I think I'm starting to feel optimistic.
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Awesome! Now back to loving trout! :-)
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"I’m changing career course just a bit" Oh no say it isn't so A real job,or maybe a ?????
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To start - Happy Thanksgiving!! The stress of having a lawsuit hanging over your head is stressful. The stress can easily take the joy out of a day if you let it. Enjoy your family and the Holiday. Let me know if the fly boxes I sent showed up? Thanks for keeping up the good fight! David
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OK, here's a coincidence. I don't know how common the surname Stienstra is in the US, however I suspect it's fairly rare. Yet, just yesterday, after reading this blog entry, I was introduced to another Stienstra, who happens to be a contractor to my company. [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act]At some point I will ask him to reign in his "mad-dog" relative.[/Section 230 of the Communications ... more Decency Act]
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Tom, it went live in e-book version yesterday: https://secure.mybookorders.com/orderpage/1291 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the other retailers will have it live next week... At least that's what my publisher says!!!! Michael ______________________________ Michael J. Fitzgerald Backpack Journalist & Columnist *subject2change Media Watkins Glen, NY, Arroyo Seco, Jalisco, Mexico 607-535-4941 (Watkins ... more Glen, home office) 916-201-0787 (U.S. cell) 315-107-6957 (Mexico cell) http://stardatejune07.blogspot.com/ http://writingformoney.blogspot.com/
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Upcoming post involving the ghost of Wally the Wonderdog rising to haunt all the contenders for family dog -- until this one showed.
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BTW -- let us know when The Fracking War is available. Didn't know about your blog until now.
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Michael Fitzgerald: Hope this posting leaps to the top of the Google heap… Gosh, that never occurred to me. Is such a thing possible? Hmmm...
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He's certainly grown a little less popular with me.
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"Project Dog"??? I remember a new cat ( THAT'S gotta be fun with wee ones....do they dress it up?) but a canine.....do tell.....Oh,yeah....High Fives all around..oops,was I ironic? JP2
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I love it when a bully gets punched in the nose. Nicely done! Hope this posting leaps to the top of the Google heap...
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A lot less popular since they took his greenhouse operation away, one supposes.
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Wow, you mean the "popular outdoor writer and author Tom Stienstra has been arrested on suspicion of possessing marijuana for sale"?!!! Wait, who the fuck is he again?
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Fontinalis Rising: Good job. Thanks for fighting the fine fight. I’m greatly heartened by this. Plus, should another blogger get sued, I'm practically an expert on defamation law. Sue one of us, you get us all, motherfucker.
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Dan: Un-der-ground! Un-der-ground! Un-der-ground! Congrats :). Good thinking. In court, I could have used a couple of cheerleaders...
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Phil Monahan: What the hell am I gonna do with these 500 “Free Tom Chandler” t-shirts I was gonna hawk over the holidays? Good on ye, TC. I've got two kids under 5, a new "project" dog and I'm changing career course just a bit. I'd say the t-shirt still plays. Besides, statistically speaking, it's only a matter of time before I get into some new kind of trouble. Your investment is safe.
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Dave Kile: Congrats and good news Tom!! Thanks for spreading the word on Twitter.
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Let's be careful when discussing things I might be oozing. In a small town, that's all it takes to start a rumour.
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FlyLink: May all his other cases will go the same way! Appears he's zero for three in Siskiyou County small claims court. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
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James Hathaway: I hope to someday be important enough to be defamed by the Underground. Right. You're saving the world (and doing so with the help of The Most Interesting Man In the World). It'd be a stretch to defame you. Maybe start a rumour you're mean to puppies or something?
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flyfish ks: hopefully this is the last time you have to deal with something like this. No kidding. The courtroom/legal stuff always looks so interesting on the TV, but in real life it's pretty damned uninteresting (unless it happens to be your neck on the line). I'll pass on any further visits.
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Mark Coleman: Only in America. Glad to hear the good news, TC. Thanks.
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Turnip Truck Driver: Great!Let’s all get drunk and ….. uhh, well, celebrate. You can get drunk; I'll do the celebrating (fewer headaches that way).
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Victor: Congratulations !! great news, maybe not the exact result you were looking for but it’s done, treat yourself to a little fishing !! It's just about the perfect time to start slapping the dying October Caddis patterns along the margins of the river...
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Mike Sepelak: So, why did it take three months to figure out that the statute of limitations to file had expired? Oh, and HOORAY! Yeah. Exactly. In my ignorance, I half thought I'd walk out of the courtroom with this win in my pocket.
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Patrick: twenty-eight years in journalism of one sort or another and I’ve only had to deal with disgruntled sources, never in court… I admit I never thought I'd end up in any court, much less at the pointy end of a lawsuit filed by a journalist. (But then, I think I'm giving more credit than is due.) I wouldn't have been wholly surprised to receive a threatening letter from my friends at Nestle for ... more StopNestlewaters.org, but not this.
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Good job. Thanks for fighting the fine fight. I'm greatly heartened by this.
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Un-der-ground! Un-der-ground! Un-der-ground! Congrats :).
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HA! I'll take one, Phil.
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What the hell am I gonna do with these 500 "Free Tom Chandler" t-shirts I was gonna hawk over the holidays? Good on ye, TC.
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Congrats and good news Tom!!
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Tom, thank you for sticking to your guns. Integrity is a rare commodity these days, and you are obviously oozing with it. Bravo!
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Right. F-ing. On! Serves the little weasel right! Hope he has learned his lesson. May all his other cases will go the same way! Hope this brings some peace to you Tom! Maybe you will have to, like, treat yourself and haul your ass (a-swarm with self pity of course!) for that oh so long hour drive to go fish the Pit!
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I hope to someday be important enough to be defamed by the Underground.
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Well it looks like its time for you to embark on your next legal conquest and counter sue Stienstra for court cost and a frivolous lawsuit! In all seriousness though congrats on the win and hopefully this is the last time you have to deal with something like this.
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Great! Let's all get drunk and ..... uhh, well, celebrate.
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Only in America. Glad to hear the good news, TC.
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Liability insurance? What's that?
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Congratulations !! great news, maybe not the exact result you were looking for but it's done, treat yourself to a little fishing !!
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So, why did it take three months to figure out that the statute of limitations to file had expired? Oh, and HOORAY!
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I was waiting...twenty-eight years in journalism of one sort or another and I've only had to deal with disgruntled sources, never in court...so, glad to hear this decision. As is said, the truth shall set you free. Well, most of the time. Good news!
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Cathy: Best news I’ve had today – awesome! Thanks! Made my day too.
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fausto: I think this calls for adding another section to the Stienstra entry over at Wikipedia. Hmmm.
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Steve Z: Well, that’s enough of that. Congrats, now let’s move on. Christ, no kidding.
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Arizona Wanderings: Dang. Glad to hear that it all worked out and that sucker got put in his place. Regardless, I’m still putting a warning label on future packs of mini-hoppers. Congrats again on the good news. Ben Thanks. But because I got one of the pre-legal-warning hoppers and it drew blood, I'm forced to sue you anyway. Pity that. Just so I know how much to sue for, how much liability insurance ... more do you have?
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Best news I've had today - awesome!
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I think this calls for adding another section to the Stienstra entry over at Wikipedia.
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Well, that's enough of that. Congrats, now let's move on.
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Dang. Glad to hear that it all worked out and that sucker got put in his place. Regardless, I'm still putting a warning label on future packs of mini-hoppers. Congrats again on the good news. Ben
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