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The Lawsuit Post

Posted by Tom Chandler 8/29/2013

The mainstream media's come calling about the defamation lawsuit filed against the Trout Underground (I'm conducting an interview this morning), so while it will set my legal advisor's teeth to grinding, it's time to roll out some of the basic details for the Undergrounders.

On July 16, well-known San Francisco Chronicle outdoor writer Tom Stienstra filed a $10,000 suit against me in Siskiyou County small claims court, alleging my short article about his marijuana-related arrest is defamatory.

Simply put, it's not.

As you can imagine, I have a lot of (constitutionally protected) opinions about this whole matter, but the lawyer who advised me also told me to keep things calm and simple until the verdict was in.

So simple it is. On August 22 we all showed up in small claims court (in small claims court, you have to represent yourself), the judge heard everyone talk, and promised a verdict in 60-90 days. So I wait. If you want the details, you'll have to wait too -- I'm holding off publishing my impressions of the suit and the players until then.

I will say this. The article isn't defamatory, and in fact, in my (still constitutionally protected) opinion, this isn't really a libel case. It's an attempt to erase an unflattering story from the online record.

The Underground's article about Stienstra's arrest isn't libelous, nor is it significantly different from those that appeared in the Redding Record-Searchlight, the Sacramento Bee, ABC's Channel 10 news, The San Francisco Press Club, Fox News, and even Stienstra's own newspaper -- the Chronicle.

The real difference between the Underground's article and the mainstream media versions mentioned above -- which enjoyed much wider circulation than the Underground's -- is that mine appears on the first page of Google results for "Tom Stienstra."

The next mention of Stienstra's arrest doesn't appear until the bottom of page 3.

Eureka.

Some (Constitutionally Protected) Thoughts

I didn't write a libelous article and I didn't ask to be sued. I sure as heck wasn't interested in spending could-have-been-college-fund-money-for-my-kids on legal fees, or investing days researching legal text that would make your head implode.

And I really didn't feel the need to become a champion of blogger's rights (in California, bloggers receive the same protections accorded traditional media).

All that was someone else's choice.

I feel pretty secure in the outcome. The law is clear. Yet -- like anyone would -- I'm holding my breath. $10K is a lot of money.

The judge promised a verdict in 60-90 days.

I suspect we'll see more of this kind of thing in the future. Bloggers often get better Google results than newspapers, and lacking a legal staff, they certainly represent a juicier target.

I've already received supportive emails about this, and like me, many wonder about the wisdom of this suit.

By taking this route with a story that is essentially 3.5 years old (and fading fast), Tom Stienstra has likely invoked what's called "The Streisand Effect," where a celebrity tries to suppress information but only succeeds in gaining wider circulation for it. Again, not my choice.

Resources

If you want to read more about California's libel laws, then this page is an excellent source of information (note the "statute of limitations" paragraph at the bottom).

In fact, the Digital Media Law Project -- a project of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet && Society -- has proven invaluable. Through their Online Media Legal Network I got a lot of great advice (including a fair amount of reassurance) and an attorney referral.

When you're facing down a lawsuit -- and you have some knowledge of the law but zero experience -- advice from a Harvard attorney who specializes in online media law does wonders for the spirit. Ditto the help of another local attorney who provided a lot of background, and the SF attorney who helped me immeasurably, but prefers to remain anonymous for now.

See you thinking about the stuff I didn't say, Tom Chandler.

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.

61 comments
[…] An outdoors writer busted for pot sues a blogger, who actually had the gall to write that said outdoors writer was arrested. At the center of the legal battle is Tom Chandler of Trout Underground. On the other side Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle, who filed a defamation suit in small claims court for $10,000.The dispute seems rather petty. What’s startling is that the ... more Chronicle apparently has not disciplined Stienstra. I was in the newspaper business for nearly 30 years. I remember folks were shown the door for much less.I have no idea what Stienstra’s motivation is. Chandler reported the arrest just as a number of other media outlets did. My guess is he’s irked that Chandler took a few jabs here and there. Apparently Stienstra felt he deserved more respect. Who knows?Trout Underground goes to court […]
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[…] about the lawsuit filed against the Trout Underground by outdoor writer Tom Stienstra is starting to appear outside the fly fishing […]
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Could be worse; he could have called you a 'Nymph Fisherman'. At least he stopped at just 'evil'.
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Good luck from Ohio as well - what's in your favor is that slander and libel cases are quite hard to win (from the prosecutor's point of view). Hopefully you'll win and this will be a good precedent for all bloggers everywhere.
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Used to be a Steinstra fan but lately I'm not sure and not just becauce of this silly thing he's doing. Seems like he's full of himself and why does he need to grow and sell weed??? Give it up Tom S.
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Yes... very interesting to follow what's going on. Crazy to try to limit freedom of speech like that. It is about as clear cut as it gets. Keep fighting the good fight Tom.
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So is he still working on the chronic? Oh, I mean, working at the Chronicle...that's what I meant. The chronic... that was just a Freudian slip.
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Weird! That's what we call it over in Humboldt, too. We may have our differences, we coastal dwellers and you mountain folk, but at the end of the day we all just want to kick back, burn a stienstra and watch reality shows on basic cable.
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Hey, a little support for the Underground from The Lost Coast Outpost.
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We’d better be careful, I hear he’s planning to sue all the commenters too. What, you haven't been served yet?
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Thanks. More to come on this one.
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[…] in the case. Stienstra filed a small claims lawsuit against The Trout Underground a few weeks ago, the Underground reports. Why? According to the Underground, Tom Stienstra is alleging that the Underground’s report of […]
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We'd better be careful, I hear he's planning to sue all the commenters too.
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Thanks. As soon as I know, you'll know.
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Another bit of irony, without this ridiculous lawsuit, a simple fly fisherman from Indiana that scans the blogs wouldn't even know about this guy's penchant for growing weed and inaccurate reporting. Now I'm fully aware and have passed this along to several friends. Love the blog and will be following the outcome closely. Tightlines
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In the parlance of my 16 y.o. son, "Guy's a douche." That is my opinion also on this "public figure". Keep up the good fight!
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herminator: I would have s**t myself when I got the letter! I think I was more angry than scared. There was that sense that I could cost my family $10K for being stubborn, but I was pretty clear that this wasn't libel. A few minutes of research were pretty reassuring about defamation law and the statute of limitations, and then I got pretty angry that he was mixing ego and ignorance and putting my ... more family through this.
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Steve: That a journalist would sue for libel is somewhat ironic. More speech is always the answer, not less. Ironic is a very nice word for it. I use other phrases. Stienstra is very much a public figure in California; he's probably the state's best-known outdoor writer, and in addition to his columns (which are syndicated I believe), he also has a radio show, had a TV show, etc. That makes the standard ... more for libel "Reckless Disregard" or "malice" -- which in this case doesn't refer to ill will, but publishing something you know isn't true, or something questionable when the means for checking it is at hand. In any case, I look forward to explaining the ins and outs of this case once the verdict comes.
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Was very happy to read that you took on the fight and it certainly sounds like the law is on your side. You just re-stated facts that had already been published elsewhere on the internet! Even to sue you for that is completely ridiculous. But I understand the ever so slight chance of having to pay a bunch of money for no reason would be scary. I would have s**t myself when I got the letter! Perhaps ... more the guy should move to Colorado. Rumour has it the fishing is decent, he would start on a clean sheet, and from January he can get a (legal) rocky mountain high. Keep the good posts coming!!
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Not a lawyer, but I taught a course for years on media law. All 50 states have different libel laws, but the basics for each are the same. To win you need to prove identification, communication and defamation. Truth, however, is an almost unbeatable defense. A plaintiff cannot recover damages if the statements were factually correct. Snark is not a fact. It's just opinion and looked at as non-actionable. ... more Moreover, the person in this instance may--repeat may-- be a limited public figure, which means that absent "malice" or "gross negligence," some misrepresentation of fact may also be protected speech. Reporting matters of public record is almost always protected. That a journalist would sue for libel is somewhat ironic. More speech is always the answer, not less.
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Matt Grobert: I really think every blogger that reads this should post it and let the irony spread.Good luck with the outcome.MG Once the verdict comes in and I post more about the trial itself -- then I think that's a plan.
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Loon: Time for some small stream therapy? Dragged the little monsters along this morning to check water temperatures. 60-62 degrees on a stream that's been in the upper 60s, so it looks like it could happen. I'm looking forward to it.
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Mark Coleman: It still amazes me that people do illegal things and then expect to suffer zero consequence. Keep in mind he was never charged, just arrested. At least three others who were arrested in relation to the case were charged, but not him. That said, if someone builds what police called a "sophisticated cultivation operation" on my property, I expect there will be fallout. Blaming the ... more blogger -- who wrote pretty much what the newspapers wrote -- is a fail.
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A. Wannabe Travelwriter: I’ll hold off baking you a chocolate cake with a hacksaw filling for now. Hell, I could still use both, though I suspect Little M would intercept the cake and disappear it before I even saw it. She's gotten that good...
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Philip: +1 to all the comments. The guy seems like a thin skinned nut. Never liked his column much anyway. Sorry you have to go through so much time wasting aggravation. Thanks. Be over soon.
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Jokey: Considering that a great portion of the article is composed of quotes from elsewhere I dont see how he has a leg to stand on. Can you counter sue for legal costs incurred? See above, but counter-suing for legal costs not part of the plan.
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Another big fan chimes in.
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Marty: Add me to the list of well wishers!!!Glad you could afford to stand up to the bully.Hopefully you can stick him for the costs associated with this….what price a pound of flesh? No plans for a countersuit. If he had filed this in Superior Court, an anti-SLAPP motion would have ended the case before it started and stuck him with the costs.
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Leifjohn: It’s called freedom of speech. They have nothing on you. As long as what you said is true and/or your personal opinion, they can’t do anything. It's even worse than that (for him). As a public figure, he has to prove that not only is something not true, but that I published it with "malice" -- the legal definition of which means I knew it was false or had an inkling, and didn't bother to ... more check.
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Chris Raine: Wish I could have been there. Everybody testifying under oath. The truth, the whole truth, so help you God. No. Wait. I was there! Yes. It’s coming back to me now. I'm still trying to block out the whole episode. Probably suffering from Post Traumatic Court Syndrome.
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Leigh: Good luck, I don’t think he has a leg to stand on. I don't think he does either.
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I really think every blogger that reads this should post it and let the irony spread. Good luck with the outcome. MG
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Time for some small stream therapy?
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It still amazes me that people do illegal things and then expect to suffer zero consequence. "I'm gonna do this thing that's against the law, but if I get caught none of you are allowed to mention it or ever use it against me in any way. I expect my life to be exactly the same as it was before I was charged with a felony." Honestly TC, I feared an airline had dragged you into court.
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I'll hold off baking you a chocolate cake with a hacksaw filling for now. I guess this is one time I am grateful that no one reads my rants. Good luck, Tom.
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+1 to all the comments. The guy seems like a thin skinned nut. Never liked his column much anyway. Sorry you have to go through so much time wasting aggravation.
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Considering that a great portion of the article is composed of quotes from elsewhere I dont see how he has a leg to stand on. Can you counter sue for legal costs incurred?
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Undoubtedly, like many others, I had never read the original post. How many new eyeballs has that egomaniacal nut sack driven to your post by his piss ass whining. Steinstra thrives on attention and this is just another way to get it. Sounds like you have good justification for nailing him with a frivolous lawsuit charge.
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Add me to the list of well wishers!!! Glad you could afford to stand up to the bully. Hopefully you can stick him for the costs associated with this.... what price a pound of flesh?
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Reading the 3 (!!!) year old comments of the post in question, I'd say the guy is just being pissy....sounds like lots of other folks had more to say and were snarkier (does that work?) in their opinions.... This sounds like the case brought by a certain presidential candidate against a Seattle blogger/sex advice writer..it got tossed.... As to the crux of the matter...sounds like Stienstra needs ... more to move up here to Wa-stafarian State...Spark one up,bro.....
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It's called freedom of speech. They have nothing on you. As long as what you said is true and/or your personal opinion, they can't do anything.
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Stienstra?! That's a person? A writer, even? I'd never heard of him, but from what I hear, stienstra is a synonym for low quality skunk-weed here in Siskiyou County. Not a bad thing I guess, I mean even the economically destitute want to have an escape from the day-to-day, and smoking a stienstra is a cheap little getaway. I'm sure he's a real wordsmith otherwise.
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Wish I could have been there. Everybody testifying under oath. The truth, the whole truth, so help you God. No. Wait. I was there! Yes. It's coming back to me now. So. My recollection was a nice-looking real estate lady took the stand and said that the Plaintiff couldn't rent a house because of the article. Did it creep you out just a little that the house he couldn't rent was right next door to where ... more you live Tom? I think that's right. I'm not totally sure. But that's my recollection of what was said. Under oath. Why would someone want to move in next door to a person he is suing?
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Touché. I guess I'll have to start printing little warning labels to put on the plastic box. Ben
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Found his profile on LinkedIn. Didn't know he had his own web site. What a dbag. Good luck, I don't think he has a leg to stand on.
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Victor: Glad you are defending your rights,hope the expense is not to high,you already know how I feel about this guy The expense hasn't been that bad, though I could have probably bought a Raine Hollowbuilt. The attorney who helped graciously agreed to work for whatever I thought it was worth, which in retrospect was a lot.
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Kirk Werner: Holy Crap is right! A couple years ago I pissed off Canada in an article about the Pebble Mine. They may come for me yet, depending on the statute of limitations, eh? In California, the statue of limitations for filing a defamation action is one year (hmmm, wonder if that applies in my situation... hey whaddya know...). In any case, if Canada wants you dead, they'll ask nicely first. ... more They're polite, after all.
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Holy Crap is right! A couple years ago I pissed off Canada in an article about the Pebble Mine. They may come for me yet, depending on the statute of limitations, eh?
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Glad you are defending your rights,hope the expense is not to high,you already know how I feel about this guy
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Catherine: THAT’s what he’s suing you about? You and my wife would likely get along very well. Same exact sentence, down to the inflection.
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Ethan: Wow, and here I was jumping to conclusions that you were battling N*stle… dang, this is so much less exciting.Slander and Libel are so tough to prove in court terms, you’re safe. Good point. I always assumed if I received court papers they would be from Nestle, but they're smart enough to know that ignoring a blogger is the best strategy.
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flyfish ks: Can’t wait for the highly opinionated version of this to come out. There is a lot around this story that should prove interesting. It's not every day someone calls me "evil" in court.
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Nick: It really chaps my ass that it’s someone in my profession, which is fighting tooth and nail for first amendment protections, that’s trying to erode them. Good noticing. One wonders how the SF Chronicle feels watching one of its own journalists employ an apparent nuisance suit in order to stifle free speech.
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Arizona Wanderings: Best of luck as everything shakes out. Thanks. I think it'll be OK. Amusingly, I just dug out a couple of Mini-Hoppers I thought I'd lost by the stream. Looking forward to fishing them again, though rest assured if I prick myself on one, you'll be sued. Just the way it is these days...
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Wow, and here I was jumping to conclusions that you were battling N*stle... dang, this is so much less exciting. Slander and Libel are so tough to prove in court terms, you're safe.
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THAT's what he's suing you about? Sounds like tactics others have used for different 'harvesting'. Too bad you've had to spend cash to defend. Good luck!
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Cathy: In the (hopefully unlikely) event that you lose, could we send you donations? Thanks for the kind offer, but I don't believe it will be necessary. I shouldn't lose, but if I do, I get an appeal (the plaintiff doesn't, so if I win, there's no appeal from the other side). Small claims court is an odd place to try a defamation case (the legal network guys said this was the first they'd seen), ... more but this one aspect of it works to my favor.
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Well obviously Stienstra hasn't been smoking any of the leafy green stuff lately or he'd be way too chill to press charges against you. Good to hear that the outlook is looking good for you. Can't wait for the highly opinionated version of this to come out.
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If this escalates there are a lot of places who will happily shine light on this sort of abuse and get the Streisand machine kickin'. Techdirt, Popehat and a whole bunch of other blogs are good at exposing this sort of litigious nonsense. It really chaps my ass that it's someone in my profession, which is fighting tooth and nail for first amendment protections, that's trying to erode them. Hang in ... more there, Tom.
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In the (hopefully unlikely) event that you lose, could we send you donations?
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Holy crap. Glad things are looking positive at this point. Kudos to you for standing by what you wrote and not backing down. Best of luck as everything shakes out. Ben
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