Jul 15, 2009 What is with these “I’ll sue you” letters?
When a client comes to me with a lawyer’s letter threatening a lawsuit unless my client makes amends for allegedly libelous words about the lawyer’s client, I might remind the lawyer about the First Amendment’s limitations on such lawsuits, as well as a lawsuit’s re-airing of the allegedly libelous communications that the plaintiff claimed s/he did not want aired in the first place.
I strongly believe that libel suits violate and are incompatible with the First Amendment. Protecting the First Amendment always comes at a price, including the real harm caused to those who are victims of intentional lies about them. The public loses out when the First Amendment has no more teeth than toilet paper. Earlier this year, I further detailed my opposition to libel suits.
Late last month, Los Angeles lawyer Martin Singer sent a threat letter to the San Diego Reader warning of exposure to "potentially astronomical [financial] damages" through a defamation suit if the newspaper "proceed[s] to recklessly and falsely publish a Story which falsely states, either directly or by implication, that my client [Platinum Equity, LLC] engaged in wrongdoing…" Singer’s letter states at the beginning and end that it is confidential and not to be republished.
To me, such threat letters are an example of some of the worst behavior of lawyers — not all lawyers, but too many of them.
I learned about this threat letter when I got a call a few weeks ago from San Diego Reader reporter Don Bauder. In his article on Singer’s threat letter, Bauder reported today as follows on his discussion with me:
"Attorney Jon Katz of Silver Spring, Maryland, who also does First Amendment cases, says he has never heard of a newspaper threatening another over publication of privileged material, although he has not done research on the matter. As to Singer’s warning that his letter could not be published or used in any other way, Katz says, ‘As a free expression zealot, I would be surprised if any judge treated the lawyer’s threat letter as confidential, where the recipient made no such agreement.’”