A nonprofit news site in Wausau, Wis., is in danger of going out of business due to a lawsuit brought by a businessman turned politician who was quoted using an antigay slur.
At the Marathon County Board meeting August 12, 2021, board members and citizens were debating “a resolution intended to promote diversity and inclusion,” The New York Times reports. One of the citizens attending, recycling company owner Cory Tomczyk, referred to a 13-year-old boy as a “fag,” a witness told The Wausau Pilot & Review. The witness was the boy’s mother, and a friend helped her identify Tomczyk. The news site ran a story attributing the slur to him.
Tomczyk denied using the word and demanded that the Pilot & Review retract the story. When the staff refused, he sued for defamation.
A judge dismissed his suit in April, saying Tomczyk had not proved he was defamed. But he has appealed, and the suit has already cost the news outlet $150,000 in legal fees.
Shereen Siewert, the Pilot & Review’s founder and editor, told the Times she doesn’t see how she can continue paying her staff — four people — and the cost of the legal defense. She dreads opening her mail for fear of seeing yet another bill.
“Those dollars could be going to pay reporters for boots on the ground coverage, not paying legal fees for a lawsuit that appears designed to crush us,” she said. Her site is a key source for local news in Wausau, a central Wisconsin town of about 40,000, where the daily newspaper, the Wausau Daily Herald, has cut back significantly.
There has been a trend of politicians, especially Republicans, using defamation law against the media, the Times notes. They have ranged from Donald Trump, who has lost several major defamation suits, to local politicians like Tomczyk, who was elected to Wisconsin’s Senate as a Republican in 2022. Even when the suits are thrown out, they create a financial burden on media companies.
“It would be an affront to freedom of speech and press to allow Mr. Tomczyk to continue to impose expense and time on the Wausau Pilot,” Rodney Smolla, president of the Vermont Law School, told the Times. Smolla has represented several media outlets that were sued for defamation.
Tomczyk would not speak to the Times, but his lawyer, Matthew M. Fernholz, said Tomczyk was “categorically denying that he used the word” or any related term at the meeting.
However, it appears that the Pilot & Review’s reporting on the meeting did not meet the legal standard of acting with “actual malice” — with the knowledge that the information was untrue or with reckless disregard of whether or not it was true, the Times notes.
“Three additional people who attended the meeting later gave sworn statements that they had heard Mr. Tomczyk use the word,” the Times reports. “And during a deposition, he admitted having said it on other occasions.”
In a deposition submitted by a lawyer for the news site, Tomczyk is quoted as saying, “I have a brother who is a gay guy, and I’ve certainly out of joking and out of spite called him a ‘faggot’ more than once.”
Lawsuits like Tomczyk’s will undoubtedly continue, legal and media experts told the Times. “I think we’ve got a situation now where these lawsuits are so pervasive, and the claims for damages are so astronomical, that chills,” Laura Lee Prather, who heads the media law practice at the firm Haynes Boone, told the Times. “A chill not just on the journalists or the news organization that’s on the receiving end of the lawsuit, but on anyone else who might be considering writing on the same subject.”