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Lori Kilchermann is a yellow journalist

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In a 2012 story on a meth bust, the Ionia Sentinel-Standard, based in Michigan, decided to run a picture of the bust site farmhouse from 2 years earlier, when a political candidate had held a fundraiser. This led to accusations of the Sentinel-Standard and its editor, Lori Kilchermann, engaging in "yellow journalism," or distorting irrelevant details of a story for purposes of sensationalism or partisanship. These detractors also publicly encouraged others to cancel their Sentinel-Standard subscriptions in protest.

The merits of the accusations are debatable. What is not debatable is that Ms. Kilchermann was really pissed off by them. So pissed off, in fact, that she sued for defemation and other related charges, including tortious interference with a contract or business relationship.

The complaint has been uploaded here, and the above summary really doesn't miss much. The main alleged "defamation" and "tortious interference" were a letter the defendants sent to Kilchermann's superiors complaining about the stuff she put in the paper -- or, in other words, how she was performing her job. If Kilchermann's allegations have any merit whatsoever, then complaining about an employee's job performance to a superior can amount to defamation, and engaging in the marketplace of ideas by encouraging others to disassociate themselves with a business is unlawful tortious interference with the business. In other words: patent bulltrout.

A motion's hearing for summary judgment was supposed to be heard last week, but apparently it was postponed. Which highlights another important issue: despite how utterly meritless this case is, it has still drug on, costing the defendants thousands in legal fees. These baseless cases can still be ruinous to defend without pro bono representation in jurisdictions like Michigan that do not have comprehensive anti-SLAPP statutes.

A SLAPP is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a lawsuit designed to silence a speaker or otherwise punish him for engaging in a constitutional right, or at least make such engagement prohibitively expensive. In the normal course of a civil case, a plaintiff files the complaint, which starts the lawsuit. The complaint does not have to list every piece of evidence or legal argument, and just needs to claim sufficient facts that, if believed, justify the charges. The defendant has two options: filing an answer (making his own factual claims) or a motion to dismiss. Motions to dismiss at this stage are very unlikely to succeed, as they require the court to assume all facts alleged by the plaintiff in the complaint are true, and no discovery is permitted or any other documents consulted. If the case is not dismissed then, the defendant files his answer, and the case moves onto the discovery phase, which can last months and require hours of more work and thousands dollars (depositions, filings, etc.). After discovery, if the plaintiff hasn't shown enough facts to make out his case, the defendant can file a motion for summary judgment. A judge can award summary judgment to a party if there are no material facts in dispute after discovery and one side has the prevailing legal argument.

The summary judgment stage is where most bogus lawsuits are thrown out, as the burden for a defendant to win a motion to dismiss is very high. But as you can see, just getting to the summary judgment stage requires a lot of time, money, and attorney work. The length and cost of the typical legal process allows abusive plaintiffs with some money to punish critics, and most of them will not have the money to put on their own defense and be willing to settle (which usually involves self-censorship).

Anti-SLAPP statutes are designed to fight such injustice. They generally allow defendants to file a special motion to dismiss which, upon a basic showing that a constitutional right is at issue and that the lawsuit was designed to stifle that right, require the plaintiff to proffer sufficient facts and legal arguments to support their case. If the plaintiff can't, the case is dismissed, and the defendant is awarded attorney fees. Robust anti-SLAPP statutes are a hugely important tool for protecting free speech, as they not only massively speed up the process and punish abusive plaintiffs, but also add greater incentive for attorneys to accept potential anti-SLAPP cases pro bono, knowing that they can be awarded attorney fees if they succeed.

Unfortunately, it appears that Michigan does not have an anti-SLAPP statute (there isn't a federal one, either). which is why this absurd case can go on for so long. Lori Kilchermann may or may not be a yellow journalist, but she's certainly a horrible and unprincipled one, who has no problem trying to financially punish her critics. She should not be allowed in any position of authority of any newspaper, and any paper who employs her should be viewed with extreme caution.
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  1. Raistlin's Avatar
    This may just be my search results (though I was logged out at the time), but for me, this blog entry is showing up on the first page of a Google search for "Lori Kilchermann" (in quotes). That is both cool and disappointing -- the latter because there is disappointingly little ruckus about this case.
  2. Jinx's Avatar
    If she's yellow, she might want to get to a doctor...
  3. Jiro's Avatar
    That's pretty disgraceful behaviour. Too many loopholes allow people to put honest people on the back foot and make legitimate complaints impossible. If this is the sort of behaviour she conducts, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that her journalistic ethics are questionable too.