UNITED STATES NEWS

Wisconsin Democrats want to ban sham lawsuits as Republican senator wages war on local news site

Aug 23, 2023, 10:42 AM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats on Tuesday proposed barring the use of expensive, sham lawsuits to silence criticism after a Republican state senator was accused of trying to bankrupt a local news outlet for reporting on his alleged use of a homophobic slur.

The Wausau Pilot & Review reported in 2021 that local businessman Cory Tomczyk, who became a state senator in January, called a 13-year-old boy a homophobic slur during a city meeting where the boy testified in support of a diversity and inclusion measure that had sparked divides in the northern Wisconsin community.

Tomczyk denied using the slur and sued the newspaper for defamation. In the course of that lawsuit, three people who were present at the meeting swore that they heard Tomczyk use the word. In a deposition, Tomczyk also admitted to having used the word on other occasions, The New York Times reported. A judge ultimately dismissed the case in April, saying Tomczyk had not proven that the paper defamed him.

The legal proceedings have cost the small, nonprofit news site close to $200,000 so far, its founder and editor Shereen Siewert told The Associated Press on Wednesday. When Tomczyk filed to appeal the case in June, Siewert’s worries grew.

“He knows we’re a small news organization. He knows we don’t have deep pockets and that continuing to fight this lawsuit is very damaging to us financially and could shut us down,” she said.

Tomczyk’s office declined to comment on the bill or the lawsuit, and his attorney Matthew Fernholz did not immediately return a phone call on Wednesday.

The Wausau Pilot & Review’s four-person newsroom has an annual budget of roughly $185,000, according to Siewert. Mounting legal expenses have already forced the news site to put off plans to hire an additional reporter. The burden has only begun to ease in the past week after the news site’s story gained national attention and a GoFundMe page brought in roughly $100,000 in contributions.

The bill Democrats unveiled Tuesday would allow people to ask a judge to dismiss a lawsuit against them if they believe the suit is a baseless challenge over their exercise of free speech. If the judge finds that the case doesn’t have a probability of succeeding, they can dismiss the lawsuit and order the person that filed it to pay the opposing party’s attorney’s fees.

“It takes a lot of stamina to stand up against this type of political coercion,” bill sponsor Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said. “Even if the suit is not viable, which is the case with Sen. Tomczyk’s lawsuit, the cost and the stress associated with these frivolous, lengthy litigation processes are oftentimes enough to create chilling effects.”

The kinds of meritless lawsuits targeted by the bill are commonly referred to as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP. At least 31 states and the District of Columbia already have anti-SLAPP laws on the books, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“This is long overdue,” Siewert said. “I’m incredibly grateful that this legislation is being proposed to protect journalists and small news organizations like ours in the future.”

In the GOP-controlled state Legislature, however, the bill is unlikely to pass. At a Democratic news conference announcing the measure, Bill Lueders, president of the non-partisan Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called on Republicans to support it.

“The defense of transparency is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Local news outlets are absolutely vital to the important business of having an informed electorate, and yet the challenges that news outlets face have never been greater.”

___

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.

United States News

Most Americans are sleepy new Gallup poll finds...

Associated Press

Most Americans say they don’t get enough sleep, according to new Gallup poll

A new Gallup poll found that most Americans are sleepy — or, at least, they say they are. Multiple factors play into this.

5 hours ago

Near-total abortion ban in Arizona dates back to Civil War era...

Associated Press

Near-total abortion ban dates back to 1864, during the Civil War, before Arizona was a state

The near-total abortion ban resurrected last week by the Arizona Supreme Court dates to 1864, when settlers were encroaching on tribal lands.

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Abu Ghraib detainee shares emotional testimony during trial against Virginia military contractor

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A former detainee at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison described to jurors Monday the type of abuse that is reminiscent of the scandal that erupted there 20 years ago: beatings, being stripped naked and threatened with dogs, stress positions meant to induce exhaustion and pain. The testimony from Salah Al-Ejaili, a […]

7 hours ago

Associated Press

Judge orders psych evaluation for Illinois man charged in 4 killings

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — A judge on Monday ordered a psychiatric evaluation for a northern Illinois man charged with killing four people and injuring seven others by stabbing, beating and driving over them. Winnebago County Judge Debra Schafer ordered the evaluation for Christian Soto when the 22-year-old man appeared in court by video link for […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

NASA confirms mystery object that crashed through roof of Florida home came from space station

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — NASA confirmed Monday that a mystery object that crashed through the roof of a Florida home last month was a chunk of space junk from equipment discarded at the International Space Station. The cylindrical object that tore through the home in Naples on March 8 was subsequently taken to the Kennedy […]

8 hours ago

Follow @ktar923...

Sponsored Content by Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.

Sponsored Articles

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

Wisconsin Democrats want to ban sham lawsuits as Republican senator wages war on local news site