Shortly after having homophobic blogger Douglas Handshoe's libel suit removed to federal district court, the Toronto Star and its investigative journalist Peter Edwards have hired a highly experienced lawyer who clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court and has won important victories in Mississippi libel cases. Luther Munford of Butler Snow is the third attorney working the case. Today, the defendants filed their defense, which includes challenging the personal jurisidction of Mississippi courts over the Canadians, and also claims as "substantially true" the report of Handshoe's homophobia.
In the article at issue in the lawsuit, The Star was reporting on a legal victory by a gay couple in Nova Scotia over Handshoe in that province's Supreme Court. Tellingly, the legal award to Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret included damages for defamation, including a context of blatantly homophobic rhetoric published by Handshoe on his blog "Slabbed."
Handshoe filed his latest lawsuit in county circuit court this past February alleging that an article that referred to him as homophobic was defamatory. At about the same time, he also sued the Halifax Chronicle-Herald newspaper with similar allegations. Both newspapers have said Handshoe did not serve them properly, and both filed a variety of other defenses. The Star's defense is succinct compared with that of the Chronicle-Herald, but the legal talent hired by both newspapers indicates they take this legal challenge from Handshoe very seriously. Handshoe is self-represented.
Both newspapers claim Handshoe is a "vortex public figure," which means he interjected himself into public controversies. In U.S. defamation law, this places a much higher burden of proof upon libel plaintiff Handshoe.
The Chronicle-Herald hired the law firm Daniel Coker Horton & Bell, and filed a detailed defense that directly contests head-on Handshoe's allegtions, intentions, and motivations. Lead attorney Jackson Ables, III, has litigated "print media and motion picture defamations," according to the firm's web site. "His defense of a libel action over Orion’s 'Mississippi Burning' led to
the reopening of the investigation of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers
and to the conviction of Evers' murderer in 1994," states the Ables online biography. Legal observers have said that Ables is particularly well suited to fight this legal conflict, where Handshoe's homophobia is pitted against Canadain values of civil rights, freedom of expression, and equality.
The Toronto Star's libel specialist Luther Munford attended University of Virginia law school, as well as Oxford and Princeton Univerisites. He has helped his clients prevail against libel claims on summary judgment motions in at least two two major Mississippi case: McDonald v. Raycom TV Broadcasting, Inc. and Blake v. Gannett.
Ironically for "investigative blogger" and Catholic school St. Stanislaus alumnus Douglas Handshoe, both newspapers cite freedom of speech and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Handshoe, who as a defendant in defamation lawsuits filed by Leary & Perret, used the strictures of Mississippi libel law to his advantage, will now have the burden placed on him of proving that he is not homophobic. Proving the falsity of an alleged defamatory statement is a burden placed on the plaintiff under Mississippi law.
Given that three justices of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, three circuit judges of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit, and the Chief Judge of a U.S. district court have found Handshoe's publications to be homophobic, this looks like more than an uphill battle.
Both newspapers, however, appear prepared for war.