Protect the Press

A Local News Site Reported on Homophobia. Now, They Might Get Sued Out of Business

For years, The Wausau Pilot & Review, a reader-supported news outlet serving Wausau, Wisconsin, was a trusted source of local news. Now, one slur could put the company completely out of business.

In the fall of last year, the Review got a tip from a reader about a Republican Senator and prominent local businessman, Cory Tomczyk. The story was that Tomczyk, during a company board meeting, had casually used the f-slur to describe a pre-teen boy. When the Review printed the story, Tomczyk denied the story and asked for a retraction to be printed. The Review, who by now had recieved confirmation from additional sources, refused to do so.

Now Tomczyk is suing the paper for all it’s worth. And as a 501C3 organization, that’s not much, as you can imagine.

Although a judge dismissed the defamation case in April of this year, Tomczyk hasn’t backed down. He seems to want to make an example of the Review, and the legal costs are quickly piling up.

“Those dollars could be going to pay reporters for boots on the ground coverage,” Wausau Pilot & Review founder Shereen Siewer told the New York Times, “not paying legal fees for a lawsuit that appears designed to crush us.”

Strangely enough, what moneyed politicians like Tomczyk—perhaps following the lead of litigious public figures like Elon Musk and Donald Trump—are trying to do was already tried years ago, unsuccessfully, by Teddy Roosevelt, in an era-defining 1909 trial.

In W.A. Swanberg’s towering William Randolph Hearst biography “Citizen Hearst,” he explains that Roosevelt, on the final day of his Presidential term, sought a Federal indictment of Joseph Pulizer’s “The New York World” on the grounds that the World had implied that Roosevelt lied about how much he knew about the Panama Canal for his own mercenary purposes. If Roosevelt had won the suit, Swanberg writes: “the privilege of the press to criticize public officials would virtually have been abolished” in America.

But Roosevelt didn’t win, and we still have vanity cases like Tomczyk’s against the Review—and the recent raid on the Marion County Record—that seek to bury small presses beneath the massive legal weight of defamation lawsuits.

“The Wisconsin case, First Amendment experts warned, shows how a single defamation suit can become a cudgel against the media in a way the law never intended,” the Times reported. But there’s something more at stake in the case of the Review than a mere attack on the freedom of the press. If reporting on the use of a slur can be litigated so fiercely, it would follow that merely implying in print that a political figure is racist, homophobic, or sexist could be grounds for such a suit.

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