On Monday, a federal judge dismissed Brett Favre’s defamation suit against ESPN’s Shannon Sharpe. Favre sued Sharpe in Mississippi state court in February, following comments Sharpe made about Favre’s entanglement in the Mississippi welfare fraud scandal on FOX Sports’ Skip and Shannon: Undisputed. Previously, Favre settled a lawsuit with ESPN’s Pat McAfee after McAfee also commented on Favre’s involvement in the scandal, which ultimately saw more than $77 million intended for impoverished families in Mississippi misspent on a variety of projects.
If you haven’t been keeping up, Favre is accused of having played a role in the diversion of $5 million of Mississippi’s federal welfare money to build a new volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, while his daughter played there. Further, concussion-drug companies Favre backed that are also involved in the scandal — allegedly having overstated the known effectiveness of their drugs to raise money, per ESPN.
Additionally, as Deadspin reported back in May of 2020, “Favre, who was paid over $138 million in his NFL career, was also funneled $1.1 million to promote a state initiative, a portion of the $77 million in misspent welfare funds, for speeches that he never delivered. Those funds were reportedly a backchannel to his volleyball arena project. An audit released in 2020 said that Mississippi Community Education Center paid Favre Enterprises $500,000 in December 2017 and $600,000 in June 2018 to make speeches for at least three events. In 2020, Favre was ordered to repay the funds, but still owes nearly $228,000 in interest. Favre has said he was unaware the funds directed to him for his speeches were welfare-designated funds.”
Favre has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
So with all these allegations out there against Favre, what did Shannon Sharpe say that was so egregious as to cause Favre to go running to court to sue? According to the Favre’s complaint:
“In September of 2022, Sharpe made statements on Undisputed falsely accusing Favre of “stealin[ing] from the lowest of the low,” “taking from the underserved [in Mississippi],” and that “[Favre] stole money from people who really needed that money.” Despite the fact that Favre had not done any of those things, Sharpe could not resist the opportunity to trade on Favre’s celebrity to make headlines and gain an audience by sullying Favre’s reputation.”
At first glance, Sharpe’s words don’t seem to be anything worse than what anyone else was saying about Favre, especially on social media, and hardly seem to rise to the level of federal litigation. But Favre’s lawsuit reflects a troubling trend wherein athletes (and other high-powered celebrities) sue journalists and broadcasters for reporting and commenting on their lives in a way they don’t like. Former MLB pitcher Trevor Bauer tried the same thing with us, and was shut down by a federal judge, as well.
In Favre’s case, the judge’s order of dismissal said of Sharpe’s commentary, “(T)he Court also acknowledges that from the reports in the public arena after government investigations, forensic audits, civil litigation, Favre’s text messages, and Favre’s own implicit admission by returning $1.1 million to the State, it appears to be widely believed that the money obtained by Favre for himself and USM came from welfare funds. Although the funds may have come from the State of Mississippi…such funds were intended to go to poverty-stricken families, not to fund the construction of a college volleyball facility.”
It may be the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a judge saying, “Duh.”
So the federal court held that Sharpe’s words were constitutionally protected speech, Favre’s suit gets dismissed, and all is well in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Right?
Well, not exactly. Because in taking on Sharpe, who is thought to be worth around $14 million, Favre took on someone who had the money to fight back against what seemed to be a lawsuit designed to infringe upon free speech. Same with McAfee. Once word got out about Favre suing McAfee and Sharpe, some outlets likely backed way off criticizing Favre, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some even scrapped stories entirely. At least one other reporter was threatened by Favre’s legal team, though not sued, for making similar comments about Favre on Twitter.
Take a look at what Favre sued McAfee for. According to Favre’s complaint, McAfee called him a “thief” and claimed Favre was “stealing money from poor people in Mississippi.” And that’s a fair opinion to have, given the reporting and allegations against Favre. But when he announced the settlement on his show, McAfee’s tune had changed quite a bit.
“As I have previously stated, I respect the hell out of Brett Favre the football player and his Hall of Fame career on the field, and I have no personal knowledge about any case involving Brett in Mississippi,” McAfee said. “I am pleased to report that based solely on me again clarifying these points now, with no settlement paid, Brett is withdrawing his suit against me.”
That’s quite a 180.
And therein lies the problem with lawsuits like those filed by Bauer and Favre — they aren’t necessarily calculated to win in court. The lawyers involved likely know they are losers from the start — neither case survived a motion to dismiss by the journalist targeted. But they are extremely effective in chilling free speech. That means people who might have otherwise negatively reported or commented on Favre and Bauer now refrain from doing so in order to avoid being sued. That’s bad for journalism, and bad for our country, which depends on an informed and educated electorate. And suing anyone immediately implies to a regular Joe that the party being sued did something wrong. In this case, using plain language to talk about what Favre was accused of doing, and what Sharpe believed that meant to Mississippi’s poor.
And while defendants with the status and money that Sharpe and McAfee have are able to weather the legal storm, most people aren’t. Especially in a day and age when unemployed journalists are turning to self-published platforms like Substack to continue their work. And unless, and until, judges start making it too expensive for celebrities to fight battles over their reputations in a courtroom — by fining and sanctioning the attorneys who file these questionable defamation claims — expect a lot more journalists to find themselves in on the receiving end of a subpoena.
Original source here
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