The Hook is being sued for defamation, Tasha Kates writes in this morning’s Daily Progress, by an aggrieved subject of articles in the weekly. Thomas Lightfoot Garrett—he goes by “Tommy”—is a publicist, author, chicken farmer, radio show host, Buckingham County resident, and relentless self-promoter, but he’s also been charged with forgery and convicted of “entering the property of another with the intention of damaging it. It’s the latter two points that earned him coverage in The Hook.The Progress says that Garrett is suing the paper and staff writers Lindsay Barnes and Courteney Stuart:
According to the complaint, the first claim of defamation against all three defendants relates to the alternative newsweekly’s coverage of forgery charges filed against Garrett in Buckingham. The complaint claims that Barnes “lampoons Garrett and his attorney over one matter or another” with stories about Garrett’s court case and existence of a magazine cover story on Garrett.
The suit’s second count of defamation, which is only against Better Publications and Stuart, claims Stuart’s April 24 article on Garrett’s plea deal made false statements about the facts of the case.
He wants $5.7M, $5M of that in punitive damages.
Tracking down Courteney Stuart’s article wasn’t a problem, but
I can’t find any article about Garrett by Lindsay Barnes. [3:00 PM Update: Here it is, from February 1 of this year.] Garrett seems to be describing Stuart’s April 22, 2008 blog entry in his first claim of defamation. (Kates’ article in the DP didn’t address the substance of the claims, or even compare Garrett’s complaint with the original articles, so I’m on my own here. Note that the text of the lawsuit is not available; the DP has it, but not The Hook, and the daily wouldn’t share their copy with the weekly.) Without knowing specifically what Garrett alleges to be inaccurate, it’s tough to know whether his suit has any grounding in fact. Though with regard to his first complaint, about being “lampooned,” it’s awfully tough to envision any basis in law for such a complaint.
I asked Hook editor Hawes Spencer about Garrett’s complaint. He told me:
As you know, there have been a few times when we have gotten things wrong in a story. Typically, the subject telephones or emails, and besides offering a profuse verbal apology, we run an earnest correction. However, I’ve never received so much as a single phone call or email from Garrett or his lawyers telling me what we might have done wrong. […] I am particularly surprised to be sued when no effort has been made to tell me how our paper might have defamed this person.
Spencer went on to explain that he’d received a letter from another attorney about Garrett back in August, but that Spencer’s request for specifics about factual inaccuracies went unanswered. Compare that with Jesse Sheckler’s successful lawsuit against NBC-29 a few years ago—the poor guy was reported to have been indicted on a cocaine possession conspiracy charge, and despite his requests, the station wouldn’t run a correction. He won a $10M judgment, and rightly so.
Proving libel requires a) the complainant was identified b) the information was defamatory towards the complainant’s reputation c) the information was false, and d) it’s the respondent’s fault. But libel and slander case law (notably New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) has established a basically impossibly-high bar to clear to prove defamation against a famous figure: actual malice must be proved, meaning that the information must be published with reckless disregard for th truth. Garrett almost certainly qualifies as a public figure, given his TV appearances, books published (fiction and nonfiction), high-profile media coverage, etc., which means that the odds of him succeeding in such a lawsuit are vanishingly slim, even if The Hook published inaccurate information.
I can sympathize with The Hook in their continued coverage of him. In writing this blog entry this afternoon, it’s impossible to ignore the really sketchy aspects about this guy. Seriously, look at this magazine that he claims to have been on the cover of. This was obviously patched together in Microsoft Paint. It just screams “bad photoshop job.” (The fact that the magazine doesn’t seem to exist doesn’t help any.) Then there’s his PR firm’s website, hosted on Angelfire. Remember them? The free website hosting service from the mid-90s? Used primary to host webpages for middle school girls professing their love for boy bands? That’s where his company’s website is, at the address
http://www.angelfire.com/film/tgj/. Though the site claims to be at garretticonspr.com, that domain is unregistered. In short, Garrett looks like a train wreck in slow motion, and I get that The Hook is just watching and waiting for his big finish.
A friend once told me that you’re nobody in this town until you threaten to sue Hawes Spencer. There might be something to that. The thing is, though, you’ve got to stop at the threat. I guess Garrett didn’t get that memo.