Clarifying points of Becky Gerittson’s response to prior AL Today editorial

Twitter computer phone

First and foremost, I want to reiterate (as I said to Becky Gerritson personally during a phone call, and as I said in my first piece) I am not defending Baron Coleman’s statements about her or his assumptions about the funding of her group. His language was undeniably offensive. In my first piece, I defended his First Amendment right to say things that are offensive and to use hyperbole. In this piece, I just seek to clarify points raised in Gerritson’s reactions piece. Some of which was repeated in Mike Cason’s AL.Com story.

Second, I want to say that I made a mistake in not realizing that there are now two different Eagle Forum entities and I referenced the donors of the wrong one. That was my mistake, and I apologize to my readers for the confusion. I have updated my first piece to reflect the correction. That said, the entities are independent, but both have the same founders and use Eagle Forum in their title. I made a good faith effort in my research, but alas, failed to dive into the year’s long court records about the use of the name. The article I linked to was for an event hosted by the Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund. 

All of that said, this is not my fight. I felt strongly this is a case of First Amendment rights vs an attempt to silence someone. I still do. What Gerritson provided yesterday, was additionally offensive material that is still covered under the First Amendment. If you’re a constitutional conservative your opinion of freedoms doesn’t change with the level of offense taken, or with who the subject of conversation is. 

Ultimately the people with a stake this fight in this are Coleman’s listeners (and so far as I can tell based on the hundred comments of support, they don’t mind his language), the sponsors (not one has dropped to date), the bar association (the outcome there will be determined in time). I’m not trying to make it my fight, but I did break this story and feel like I have a responsibility to clarify on points I have previously made.

I received Gerritson’s piece with a request to run it “in its entirety.” After careful review, I decided to withhold publication as I tried to work with Gerritson to correct what I saw as factual inaccuracies or misrepresentations in her piece. I’ll let you be the judge of them. Since she went ahead and went public with it while we were corresponding for clarification here are the parts that are at best questionable if not entirely untrue:

  • The next day, May 30th Coleman continued his rant and “promised” his listeners that Eagle Forum was taking money from big pharma for my testimony. 
    • This is not what Coleman said. Even according to the transcripts provided by Eagle Forum to the station manager. Coleman said that he promised at some point in the history of the organization, note not specific for her testimony, that they had taken pharmaceutical money. 
  • So when a radio host broadcasts on the air that we have said things we haven’t and then falsely states that we were paid by big pharma (or any other interest group) for the position we took on an issue; it is my right and my duty to stand up for truth and call out the lies. So, that’s what I did.
    • See above.
  • Attorneys in Alabama have ethics rules they are required to abide by. His words and actions violated Alabama’s Bar Misconduct rule 8.4. Let’s be clear, filing an ethics complaint is NOT the same as trying to take away someone’s law license. 
    • Here is the brochure to file a complaint against an attorney. Here are the listed potential disciplinary actions that could come as a result of a complaint. Note this isn’t a menu the complainant can choose from these are the potential outcomes for any bar complaint:
      • Probation
      • Private reprimand
      • Public reprimand
      • Suspension
      • Disbarment 
  • The AL Today article claimed that I was trying to “silence” Coleman. I did alert the radio station owner and Coleman’s sponsors to his comments with a copy of his own words. Because Eagle Forum is an advocate for free speech, we intentionally did not call for a boycott nor make public comments. I just wanted them to know that he was spreading false information about Eagle Forum under their name. 
    • boy·cott /ˈboiˌkät/ verb withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest.
    • Image directly taken from letter Gerritson wrote includes a request that can be understood no other way than to request sponsors boycott his show and move their sponsorships elsewhere:This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2019-07-31-at-12.27.24-PM.png
  • When Coleman found out that I had filled the bar complaint he then went on the air and publicly threatened me. The following venomous rant was due to our privately calling out his false statements. The audio is worth listening to because the tone reveals so much. An hour later he made more threats. Please note that Mr. Coleman said that he himself could be paid to go away!! Again the next day, he continued threatening to destroy me and Eagle Forum.
    • Gerritson started her rebuttal by stating that she was not against Coleman’s First Amendment rights, but includes his language as an example of why she was right to file a complaint. Again, for the fifth time, this is not about Coleman’s words it’s about his right to use them.

Here is some additional reading on political hyperbole that those following this situation might be interested in… in this post by David L. Hudson, Jr. I am publishing it whole and encourage you to go to the website for additional information. 

According to the Freedom Forum Institute Hudson Jr. is a Visiting Associate Professor of Legal Practice at Belmont University College of Law, is a First Amendment attorney and author who has written, co-written, or co-edited more than 40 books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

“Rhetorical hyperbole is a concept important to the protection of free speech under the First Amendment. Many benefit from the principle, including protestors, sportswriters, editorialists and even the President of the United States.

When the United States Supreme Court created the true threat doctrine in Watts v. United States (1969), the Court emphasized that care must be taken to ensure that in the pursuit of punishing true threats the government doesn’t infringe on protected speech.   The Court determined that a young African-American protestor named Robert Watts engaged in “political hyperbole” when he criticized the draft by saying that “the first person he would put in his scope is L.B.J” referring to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In other words, the Supreme Court recognized that Mr. Watts engaged in “political hyperbole” rather than uttering a true threat.

The U.S. Supreme Court has employed rhetorical hyperbole to hold that heated and emotional rhetoric receives free-speech protection rather than be deemed to be defamatory.   For example, the Supreme Court ruled in Letters Carrier v. Austin (1974) that labor members did not defame nonunion members when they referred to them as “scabs” in a company newsletter.  The Court characterized the use of the term “scab” as “a lusty and imaginative expression of the contempt felt by union members towards those who refuse to join.”

More recently, a federal district court reasoned that President Donald Trump engaged in rhetorical hyperbole “normally associated with politics and political discourse in the United States” when he tweeted about comments made by Stephanie Clifford, who alleged she engaged in an intimate relationship with Trump in 2006 and faced threats from an unknown man to leave Trump alone in 2011. Clifford worked with a sketch artist to produce a picture of this unknown man after Trump was elected President.

President Trump tweeted: “A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know)!”   A federal district court dismissed the defamation suit in Clifford v. Trump, finding that the President’s emotionally charged language was hyperbole not defamation.

These court decisions recognize that speech must receive breathing space to ensure vigorous public debate and discourse. Oftentimes speech can be insulting or offensive but not cross the line into narrow, unprotected categories of speech like true threats or defamation.

Rhetorical hyperbole must receive free-speech protection in a free society.”

Here is Gerritson’s letter to sponsors please note I removed her phone number and the sponsor’s information but the content of the letters remains the same: