A pro-Trump journalist and political activist sued a Fusion reporter in federal court in Washington, DC, Thursday, the most serious action yet in the emerging conflict between mainstream news outlets and the insurgent conservative media that has set up shop in the nation’s capital.
In the complaint, shared with BuzzFeed News, lawyers for Cassandra Fairbanks allege that Emma Roller, the Fusion journalist, defamed their client when she tweeted an image of Fairbanks at the White House making what Roller claimed in a caption is a “white power hand gesture.”
Fairbanks is represented by Robert Barnes, a Malibu attorney best known for high-profile clients such as Wesley Snipes and Ralph Nader. In the suit, Barnes pits “independent, outsider writers, scribes, advocates, and journalists… a new media” against an “increasingly distrusted elite-backed press.” Mainstream media organizations “view the First Amendment as a wholly owned property of elite-backed journalists to smear and slime their adversaries at will,” the complaint reads. “The First Amendment is meant to protect the Cassandra Fairbanks’ of the journalism world: independent, alternative voices of truth in a sea of fake news.”
At the time of the photograph at issue, Fairbanks was an employee of the Russian government-owned website Sputnik. Now she works for Big League Politics, a new, far-right politics site founded by a former staffer of Breitbart, the far-right news site previously run by Steve Bannon, President Trump’s controversial chief strategist. Fairbanks is among a crop of vigorously pro-Trump writers — along with Mike Cernovich (who posed next to Fairbanks in the image in question), the self-described “national security reporter” who promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and Jack Posobiec, the writer and activist who planted fake “Rape Melania” signs at an anti-Trump demonstration — who have enjoyed proximity and access to an administration that sees few friends in the traditional press.
Since starting at Big League Politics earlier this month, Fairbanks has written stories that announced a series of rallies against sharia law and repeated a since-debunked claim about a popular pro-Trump conspiracy theory linking the murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich to WikiLeaks. Her penultimate article for Sputnik was headlined “Resuming the Witch Hunt: Flynn Accused of Secretly Taking Payments from Russia.”
The rise of a group of nakedly partisan writers who promote conspiracy theories, fabricate rape threats, and have connections to extreme online communities has caused consternation among the mainstream press. Roller’s April 28 tweet, which calls attention to Fairbanks and Cernovich making a hand gesture associated with the alt-right in the White House briefing room, comes out of this context.
Before it was deleted, Roller’s tweet was shared more than 6,000 times, sparking a discussion about the nature of hate symbols in the age of internet memes; it’s long been a stated goal of online communities such as 4chan’s /pol/ board to fool the mainstream press into reporting that anodyne gestures and images are the new swastikas.
“There was a troll meme going around saying that it meant white power,” Fairbanks told BuzzFeed News at the time of Roller’s tweet. “But it was a joke because Trump supporters are always being called Nazis even when it isn't true.”
Yet that very troll campaign could hamper Fairbanks' case, which will have to show that Roller knowingly or recklessly published false information. “If there was an active campaign to provide her disinformation and she was reasonable in relying on that information then that could certainly cut against liability,” Katie Townsend, litigation director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told BuzzFeed News.
The suit claims that Roller “acted with actual malice when she published the caption either with actual knowledge that the caption was not true or with reckless disregard as to its truth” and that the tweet caused Fairbanks to experience “extreme emotional distress.”
Roller, who learned of the lawsuit from BuzzFeed News prior to its filing, did not comment for this story.
In a statement, Fusion Editor-in-Chief Dodai Stewart wrote, "Our reporter Emma Roller has not actually been served, but the complaint provided to us by BuzzFeed is clearly frivolous. This suit is an obvious publicity stunt and an attempt to intimidate reporters who scrutinize the activities of the extreme right. We fully support Emma and will defend her."
A spokesperson for Fusion confirmed that the company would pay for Roller's legal defense.
The action comes at a time when lawsuits against journalists and media organizations have gained new stature. Technology entrepreneur and billionaire Peter Thiel funded a lawsuit against Gawker Media that ultimately caused the company to go bankrupt. And President Trump has repeatedly threatened to sue journalists and change libel law to be less favorable to the press.
"There are defamation cases designed to burden reporters or punish reporters for reporting on things that folks with some means may not want them to report on," Townsend said. "We have concerns the purpose of such lawsuits is to chill speech."
Fairbanks’ attorney Barnes told BuzzFeed News that he took the Roller case pro-bono “to send a message that people are here and listening.” Barnes received some publicity late last year when he won more than $500,000 on bets in Europe that Donald Trump would win the election.
“I’ve been disturbed by people using the leverage of institutional media to harass new media,” Barnes told BuzzFeed News. “I’ve been looking for the right case to help advocate for changing that.”