Bully Pulpit Why a sports owner's lawsuit matters

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Over three decades, Washington City Paper has faced its share of angry readers. Restaurateurs have griped that our critics slammed their eateries. Community activists have complained that we give short shrift to their neighborhoods. Supporters of Marion Barry, among others, got worked up over a headline that used a very naughty word to describe an incident involving the former mayor, a girlfriend, and a tape-recorded reference to a certain sexual activity.

But in its 30-year history, City Paper has never been accused of trafficking in Nazi, Soviet, and medieval moral ugliness—at least not all at once.

Until now.

As anyone in listening range of sports-talk radio learned last week, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has filed a $2 million lawsuit over “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder,” a November cover story in these pages by Cheap Seats columnist Dave McKenna. The suit, filed in New York rather than in any jurisdiction where Redskins fans or City Paper readers predominate, claims that the sports mogul was defamed in various ways by the story. We disagree, and stand by the story. The paper is represented by our longtime media counsel, Seth Berlin at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz. Our ownership group has retained Floyd Abrams, the legendary First Amendment lawyer, to join in the defense.

As media types, we’re accustomed to gawking at other people’s media circuses. So it’s been a bit strange to be at the center of one.

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Still, when Snyder’s legal threats became public, it was at least partly a relief. We’d first learned about his displeasure back in November via a letter from Redskins General Counsel David Donovan. The missive wasn’t directed to our editors, who most people would contact with complaints. Instead, it was sent to the investment company that controls the media firm that owns City Paper. It included this doozy of a statement: “We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of the litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.”

In other words: You can’t afford to keep covering us, so just stop.

To their credit, no one up the corporate chain ever tried to make us do anything like that. McKenna has kept covering sports, and Snyder, in the same sharp-elbowed, fearless, professional way he always has. We offered Snyder a chance to meet, to write a response, or to point out errors. He sued instead. When the matter became news last week, our colleagues elsewhere in the media reacted with near-unanimity to the complaint. Snyder’s effort was variously described as “unbearably stupid,” “unbelievably misguided,” and the work of “a man stepping on the First Amendment rights of a legitimate news organization because he doesn’t like what they say about him.

In hundreds of online comments on our website and elsewhere, the general public has reacted the same way. Threatening to put someone out of business because you don’t like their coverage has a way of upsetting Americans’ sense of fair play. People lampooned Snyder’s contention that the cover’s image of him (doctored, a la your fifth-grade teacher’s yearbook photo, with a goatee and devil horns) was anti-Semitic. And, perhaps because the term “breast cancer” never appeared in the 4,000-word story, few people bought Snyder’s contention that we’d made fun of his wife’s battle against the disease.

At the suggestion of several online commenters, we also established a legal defense fund. By the end of its first five days, the fund had received about 500 gifts totalling more than $18,000. We’ve also gotten requests to throw fundraisers, offers of pro bono legal help—and at least one shipment of cookies.

Every journalist dreams of someday being in the middle of one of those epic, David-and-Goliath, right-versus-wrong First Amendment showdowns. Still, during a week when Egyptians were facing physical threats in order to protest an autocratic government—and working reporters were subjected to actual violence while covering the demonstrations—there was something a mite embarrassing about having our version of that battle take the form of a collision with a local sports-team owner. Yes, City Paper has the right to paint a truthful, unflattering portrait of Snyder’s business and football record. But it’s not like the team has an army and a secret police force at its disposal.

The owner of the Redskins is no Hosni Mubarak. All the same, Dan Snyder’s efforts to put City Paper in its place are worth caring about. And, for the record, they’d still be worth caring about even if his Redskins were perennial playoff contenders, even if FedExField were a model of affordable ticket pricing, and even if Snyder was the sort of beloved civic figure people decorated with halos rather than devil horns.

In an age when media organizations have been battered by a lousy national economy and a rapidly shifting advertising and audience landscape, the balance of power between powerful people and the reporters who cover them has shifted, too. The First Amendment was written to keep government from abusing our rights. But citizens also need to be able to speak freely about influential public figures in the private sector. When wealthy individuals can use the threat of lawsuit to sway coverage of their questionable actions—or to jeopardize the employment of a journalist who had the temerity to report on those actions—it’s dangerous for all of us. That’s true whether the wealthy individual in question is a CEO, a politician, or just the owner of a regionally prominent NFL franchise.

City Paper’s ownership may not have been cowed by the assertion that a small paper’s net worth was such that it shouldn’t even bother to fight back. But some other media organization’s owners might not have that kind of steel. And that would really be something to get cranky about.

Michael Schaffer is the editor of Washington City Paper.

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Our Readers Say

Wow - that's a helluva well-written piece, Mr. Schaffer.
Another well written article by the City Paper! Keep up the great work and don't let this story die! Daniel Snyder needs to drop the Lawsuit!
You have a great and valid point but if you want the support of true Skins fans you should stick up for the team while you crush it's owner.
Wow. The CityPaper's big investment co. only raised about $18k in 5 days when at least that much was raised for one guy in a 2hr-fundraiser held for him when he was snared in a similar legal battle for free speech. So strange that CP chose not to cover this case because this guy's litigation pit him against one of CP's longtime FAVORITE (just search his name on the CP site) personalities next to Barry — friend of Ward 2 CM Jack Evans — LeroyThorpe(.com/lawsuit.html).

An investment Co. caught in a US$2M suit pales in comparison to this guy's US$20,000,000.00 legal battle. If Snyder's legal team is worth their weight in popcorn, they've done their homework and contacted their political friends, or they'll hire someone as smart and scrupulous as E Scott Frison as a consultant to ensure that the case doesn't get dismissed anytime soon.
I had never heard of your newspaper until this incident. I live in Central Virginia. My take is: Dan Synder has made a poor decision to pursue legal action against you. I think his intentions to provide a winning football team is commendable but it has included a number of poor football decisions. From what I've seen regarding the article he is dissatisfied with you provided excellent jounalistic views, one that he could disagree with, but not one that merits the reaction that we see from him. I question who is given him advice and it is not too late to resolve this by simply agreeing to disagree with the content but not proceeding to the level that he has indicated he will take.
Egyptians have Mubarak. Venezuelans have Chavez. I have the anti-vaccine crowd. You have Snyder. We all have dragons to slay. Wait, let me rephrase that before someone thinks I'm advocating physical harm. We all have battles to fight. Again, can be misrepresented. We all have work to do. There, that's more like it.

Keep up the good fight. We'll all be better for it.
I learned something new this week. I learned that THE DEVIL is Jewish. Who knew?

On top of the First Amendment issues, who suspected that an NFL owner would so blatantly and baselessly play the race card? I doubt the Jewish community appreciates Snyder diluting the importance of REAL anti-semitism with his own brand of COMPLETELY ILLOGICAL AND MADE-UP anti-semitism.

Can Roger Goodell fine Snyder for disgracing and ruining a proud franchise? For tainting the NFL with his shenanigans? How about just for being an asshat?

Washington City Paper has my financial and moral support. Bury this guy, please.
Hey, don't be too embarrased. As I'm sure you know, th landmark libel case is about Hustler publishing a drawing that suggested that Jerry Falwell had sexual relations with his mother in an outhouse. Not exactly Freedom Riders-level of discourse, but nonetheless it was as important a decision for the freedom of the press as any other. We don't always get to choose the ground over which we fight, but we do get to choose whether we fight for principles or not. You and your colleagues have made that choice and we all are better for it.
Dan Snyder is a poo-head, and like his team, he stinks.
If only the members of the Rooney family (Tim and Pat Rooney) who recently divested ownership in the Steelers would decide to try to purchase the Redskins from Snyder, then things could improve for DC.

The flagging of my comments must have come about because I put the url of my website at the end. Please feel free to remove that URL if this is a problem. Had I known it might create problems, I would not have included the address.

Doug Terry
Dear Mr. Schaffer - I was happy to see that 500 people have come to the aid of the City Paper. People are contributing as much as they can, but as you point out, legal fees will quickly consume the $18,000 donated to date. I just made a donation for $1,000.

The time has come for the City of Washington and Snyder to part company. I am hopeful that his brutal attempt at First Amendent initimidation will provide momentum to a boycott of the Redskins, both by season ticket holders and viewers at home, until he sells the team. I saw my first Redskin game as a boy in 1958 at the old Griffith Stadium. I have no intention of watching another as long as his ownerhip continues.

City Paper will prevail in this lawsuit on the merits. Snyder has likely been so advised by his lawyers. His objective is to inflict punishment on the Paper and its owners through the expenditure of substantial amounts for legal fees, and to serve as a warning to other media outlets who might cross his path.

His lawsuit is a continuing threat not only to the City Paper, but to any individual, columnist, newspaper, or media outlet which would dare to criticize his ownership publicly in a manner which he finds offensive.

The Washington City Paper has done nothing wrong. The lawsuit is idiotic, and a clear abuse of the legal system. Snyder and his sham, conmen, libelous lawyers are the ones who should be sued, and his lawyers' unethical, strong-arm actions need to be investigated, effective immediately, by the American Bar Association. Snyder and his sham lawyers need to issue an immediate public apology to the City Paper. As for Snyder, he is a moron, an idiot, a horrible person, a terrible businessman, and the worst owner in all of professional sports--even worse than Angelos, and that's saying something. Snyder is a jackass. As for Snyder's inaccurate, misguided and flat-out wrong claims, the City Paper article never-NEVER--mentions "breast cancer," NEVER says anything wrong about Snyder's wife, does NOT have any inaccuracies--they line about forgeries is a generalization regarding an actual bit of criminal allegations lodged against one of Snyder's several terrible businesses--and the picture, of course, is NOT anti-Semitic. These claims by Snyder are asinine, inept, idiotic, stupid and the ravings of someone who is obviously in need of medical, psychological and psychiatric assistance.
Hosni Mubarak? I find that highly anti-semetic to me and cancer stricken wife.

I'm suing you for another 10 million.
Daniel Snyder was just reported having lunch at a restaurant not named in Tysons Corner area. He was escorted to the back with a slew of his cronis in tow. The man sitting across from him in this private meeting was Mark Cuban. It is reported that Mr. Cuban and Mr. Snyder are in talks about the sell of the Redskins.
From a Jewish perspective, a mustache and horns on Dan Snyder is not the problem. From a Jewish perspective, the problem is Dan Snyder. We apologize.
And obviously Dan Snyder has given Washington City Paper more free publicity than you could ever wish to have in these tricky times. Hopefully the viral audience growth turns into more ad revenue etc etc.

In short, Dan Snyder may be the best thing that ever happened to Washington City Paper. And that's good in a funky, ironic sort of way.
At the other extreme, consider Cameron Newton. This year he became the subject of attacks both substantiated. His father did discuss with an MSU booster the possibility of his son being paid to sign with Dan Mullen at Mississippi state. But then all kinds of unsubstantiated allegations were presented.

Thayer Evans of FoxSports has repeatedly asserted that "it has been revealed" that Newton faced expulsion at Florida for academic cheating. Is he lying, or is an accessory to breaking federal student confidentiality laws? It is such rampant abuse of "free speech" rights by the most lowly of the press, like Evans and his NY Times cohort, Pete Thamel, that places sports "journalists" in a dirty, smelly container in the back alley of the publishing field.

A little self-policing is long overdue in the field of sports journalism, to restore the expectation of honesty and dispel the sleaziness that leaves one wondering if there is substance or merely show business to the sports reporting of today.
I hope you guys simply counter-sue. I'm betting that a jury would be VERY kind to you!
Keep fighting the good fight, City Paper... we're all pulling for you.
As a season-ticket holder to the Redskins, let me see that I 1) love the 'Skins and 2) gave heartily to your defense fund.

What a colossal shame that the Redskins are owned by this petty little man, with his grinch-like good David Donovan doing his dirty work.

Keep up the good fight, and more $$$s coming from me (and many other readers I'm sure) should the legal battle escalate.
Would somebody tell me how I contribute. I see a lawyer contributed $1,000. I would like to contribute some, not that much, but I also would attend fundraisers, if someone will organize some.

als
I thought the article was well written, and I agreed with many of your points. I also found the article to be entertaining. When you referred to the City Paper as a "legitimate news organization", that was hilarious.

Great one - I am still laughing :)
I support you, stop Snyder from destroying your paper and the skins!
Everyone recognized the doodle on Snyder's portrait as a near-universal expression of dislike, and I'm impressed by the creativity of whoever invented an anti-Semitic interpretation. I never knew before this controversy that Snyder was Jewish. I'm reminded of what Paul Newman's character says to his lawyer in Nobody's Fool: "You're a Jew? Really? I didn't know that. How come you ain't smart?"
I want to thank you for a very well written piece. Mr. Snyder ("Little Boy Dan") is a horses ass! As for his paid legal thugs and representatives, they are just shills with no character, or hope of surviving without kissing this horses butt.
I think Snyder's lawsuit is ridiculous. But that having been said, the City Paper could have avoided this fairly easily. Every newspaper in the country should know that you can't say someone committed a crime because that is libel "per se" which means you make it easy for people to sue you. This is why papers always use the word "allegedly." The City Paper published a statement that Dan Snyder committed forgery, which is a crime, and the statement didn't appear to be satirical one. I for one thought that Snyder himself had been convicted of forgery. So, the City Paper should not have published this particular statement. By skipping newspapering 101 they made it easy for Snyder to go after them. Luckily the City Paper has $18,000 in its war chest. That should pay for about 9 hours of Floyd Abrams time. As for people contributing to this defense fund, that is a little pathetic. The private-equity owners of the City Paper are grown-ups and they can spend their own money to defend themselves. While they're at it, they should spend a little money to educate their editors on basic libel law.
I am very pleased with Dan Snyder suing the anti--Black, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim City Paper. You folks have slandered the reputations of many Black people in the DC Governement and Black community activists at the expense of gentirfied white citizens wanting political power. OH, can't forget your local Black uncle toms that crave for your validation to be accepted. Goof for you Dan make them pay irresponsivle journalism.
I would hope Snyder is reflecting on this in his huge mansion in Potomac, staring at all his bags of money, thinking, "Hmmm, maybe this fight wasn't worth it afterall." But I realize that's wishful thinking.
So how many 'crash test dummies' does the Danny need to take the hits for him?

He had Vinny Bug-Eyes, 'Hungry Man' Swanson, now David 'I'm NOT that' Donovan and 'Wylie Coyote, Super Genius' who all have the burgundy and gold skid marks on their backsides as they perform(ed) Secret Service dive-infronts for Little Lord Shortleroy.

I wonder how much selling your soul to the Devil costs?

Oh...can I say THAT?? Oopsie...
Mr. Shaffer, if you were falsely accused of forgery in a cover story by the Washington Post what would your reaction be? I have no love for Daniel Snyder and what he has done to my Washington Redskins but the sad part is that he is being portrayed as the bully instead of rightfully where the blame should be which is on the shoulders of the Washington City Paper. Who holds the power here? It sure isn't Snyder. His recourse is to accept the false accusations and hope nobody reads them or to confront his accuser.

Then, of course, the predictable happens and all the media gathers the troops and fights an all out media blitz trashing the accuser. Then all the media outlets post links to other media outlets and say "See, the WSJ and NY Times share our opinion." Well gee, that was unexpected.

The WCP's obligation is to print stories that are 100% accurate. The piece on Snyder was accurate in many places, misleading in others and just flat our wrong in some. And sadly, you knew that when you ran it and now play the victim.
Dan Synder can lick my choad.
ROCKY -- are you kidding me>? Surely you are, E Scott Frison, soon-to-be disbarred - there is nothing smart or scrupulous about him -- and besides himself and his wife -- none of his paying clients have prevailed -- not once -- you must be one of his paid cronies -- Frison is a disgrace to the legal profession --
I was linked this by a friend of mine in the DC area and I don't actually come from the area myself (I live in Ohio). I still think that this paper's response to what is, by all accounts, a tyrant, is admirable. Keep fighting the good fight, City Paper. You make all upstanding citizens proud with your efforts! Good for you!
In response to post #32:

I don't think anyone believes that Dan Snyder, himself, as CEO of Snyder Communications, forged names related to "slamming," the unauthorized switching of a consumer's phone service from one provider to another. But he was CEO of the company when it was fined $3.1 million by Florida authorities so he most certainly bears some responsibility. Unless CEO's aren't to be held accountable. That's what the author was saying. And I believe that what Snyder is saying by filing this suit is "you can't hold me accountable, 'cause I'll sue you".

And to your claim that Snyder has not been provided recourse...CP offered to meet with him to discuss his concerns, they offered to publish his rebuttal, etc. This should never have resulted in a lawsuit, and it just shows that this is a man with no moral compass, and a thin skin to boot.

Long live the constitution's first amendment and those whose actions and intentions truly manifest their belief in our freedom of expression, without ever being intimidated by the less-than-decorous tactics of scoundrels such as Snyder and his cronies.

May you not only prevail, but continue the professional and objective tradition of good, quality journalism.

I. Mendizabal.
For a long time, the nastiest, loudest, most egocentric owner in sports was George Steinbrenner.

Then came Peter Angelos -- no more loathsome owner exists, having destroyed one of the classiest franchises in the history of sports.

Now, coming up fast on the inside is DAN SNYDER!


Post something about a Defense Fund, if there is one.... though I imagine there are scores of indignant lawyers that will take your case pro bono and with pro relish.
LET MY PEOPLE GO!!! Sell the team, Slimeball Snyder, PLEASE sell the Skins!
The last time Washington had an owner this ignorant he was a racist that was worried about money too. He had made the team "The Team of the South". It took 16 seasons and his death too finally integrate our team after years & years of being the lousiest team in the league, so he could make as much money as possible. Sound familar Dan? You and Georgie Marshall have so much in common. Maximize your profit and truly stink at fielding a winning team. I am the "Cranky Fan".
Oh yeah it's ON Snyderboy, it's ON! The day you leave is the day I'm a Redskins fan. Three generations of Skins fans stop with me until you go, ass clown.
If there ever was a time when the British "loser-pays-legal-costs" system sounded good stateside, this is it.
Snyder's legal team must be as stupid as he is. City Paper's owners most assuredly have insurance to cover the costs of litigation. Defending against this suit (which any sane judge will throw out long before it comes to trial) won't cost them a dime.
I haven't read the lawsuit, but from what I know, Snyder alleges that the WCP poked fun at his wife's battle with breast cancer and that the doodle illustration of him was meant to be anti-Semitic. Really? There were at LEAST 60 embarrassing and humiliating things about Snyder listed in the article... out of all of those, that's all he could come up with? Neither of those complaints have any merit (he must have known this since the ultimate goal here was to get an apology and/or run the paper out of business). Come on, didn't we all as kids make those same doodles on people's faces? I was just a little kid in the 80's, but I sure do miss the good ol' days.
It seems too much Crown Royal has muddied Dano's reasoning
It's time for some sober thinking w/o the emotional charge.
ROCKY,s comment seems to come from the DAN SNIDER SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT City paper won its over Dan has flattened the last tire on the band wagon and you cant see it . Dan has all ready lost and will never recover the millions he is losing running the redskins into the ground. If their is a trial it will be even worse for Dan the kid that only had 7.65 cents and couldent go watch redskins mini camp becuase Dan is the first ever to charge 10 bucks in NFL history, The guy that got sick on his stale airline peanuts, the old lady that was forced to buy tickets that had all ready been sold to some one else It will be a rerun of the final SINFIELD EPISOADE. trial i doubt it Dani's scrambling to find a way out to save face
The City Paper should issue a retraction of the devil picture, as it is insulting to devils who can actually get things done.

The City Paper should replace the devil picture with Snyder's face drawn on a douche bag. It is a far more accurate depiction as Snyder is, in fact, a total & complete douche bag. Talk about a moniker with some unused mileage, to wit:

Dan The Douche Bag Snyder
Super Douche Snyder
DANdy Douche
or perhaps rename the Douche Bag, the Dan Bag

If you go to a Redskins game, does the ticket bar you from chanting "Douche Bag Dan"? If so, could they eject 90,000 fans chanting it?

I aim to find out.
I read the article and didnt see the antisemite reference or the breast cancer reference.This is an ovious attempt to paint the WSP as racist. They do it every chance the get... Fuck You Dan Snyder you fuckin punk
God I wish we had a method of hitting back at wealthy people who really know we can't. Snyder has over-stepped his bounds. He screws all of us Redskins Fans because we bought our tickets 10 years ago and now he is trying to wipe out one of our local newspapers by threatening the use of the money we donated 10 years ago.

So lets rebel and pursue our hatred for the man. Let's show strength and "not turn up for his opening game". NO that's not going to happen because your room-mate or work friend is going to pick up your ticket anyway because they can't afford to get into Snyder Stadium any other way. Snyder can't lose. Why not walk to the game and boycot his luxurious parking revenue, but NO he'll sue Metro for allowing us to use their facilities in doing so.

I wish I had enough money to threaten those whom I know closely but who enoy me and challenge my every negative thought about them. But I am not like Snyder, my friends are my friends and as such, must be allowed to show their nuances of me.

I realize we can't win. Snyder owns us. He can dictate how we react because we bought those tickets when he was in his diaper. GO REDSKINS and GO WASHINGTON CITY PAPER another washington icon we love, we want, and we need and cannot lose because we happen to have the worst owner of any team in our National Football League and he is so threatening. We hate you man, BUT we are losers because Mr. Daniel Snyder, you know you can live with that.

Jim Gormley
Falls Church, VA
"The owner of the Redskins is no Hosni Mubarak"

He's no frickin' Jack Kent Cooke, either.

Cooke might have snorted a little as he squeezed the rear of his latest trophy woman, but he never would have done something so petty and classes as resorting to lawyers. *sigh*

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