Lambda Legal has entered the fray between Atlanta Falcons player Ovie Mughelli and several blogs and gossip sites who have reported on his alleged relationship with a man. Rod McCollom at Rod 2.O has the the letter.
Mughelli’s lawyer began sending out cease and desist letters in early January after websites–including Miss Jia, Mediaoutrage, and Queerty–ran stories about the reported relationship between Mughelli and an ex-lover. Outsports reported on the controversy, quoting the letter sent to Media Outrage and providing insight from Outsports’ attorney. Here’s what the letter to Media Outrage said:
Your blog is replete with defamatory statements as it relates to Mr. Mughelli,” the letter says. “If you do not cease and desist immediately, we will have no alternative but to seek an immediate permanent injunction and sue you for damages for defamation and false light.
Under the law, you and your company are liable for defamatory and false statements. You and your company have continuously published and/or posted stories and/or comments that allege that Mr. Mughelli is a homosexual and is or was involved in a homosexual affair with a man. As you are aware, making libelous and defamatory statements are punishable by law and subject to monetary damages and punitive relief. Accordingly, in an action for defamation, Mr. Mughelli is not required to show that you posted the story and/or comments with a malicious intent. The fact that you posted this story and these comments at all is sufficient to subject you to liability and civil damages.
In a letter–also reported by Outsports–to Mughelli’s attorney, Lambda Legal’s Beth Littrell said that Georgia law has never found that calling someone gay is defamatory and brings “public hatred, contempt, or ridicule” and that “it is inconceivable it would do it for the first time in 2010.” The letter–which is copied to Outsports’ attorney, Media Outrage, MissJia, and Queerty–says that Lambda is not currently representing any of the sites sent cease-and-desist letters.
While Media Outrage pulled down the post about Mughelli, Queerty continues to keep their post up.
The letter explains that while gays and lesbians have not achieved equality, that does not mean that they are held in such low-regard that calling a public figure gay would be considered defamation.
In a statement accompanying the letter , Littrell said “[b]eing identified as gay is neither bad nor shameful – not in life nor under the law.” She continued:
At its core, defamation is about disgrace. Recognition of this defamation claim would demean gay men and lesbians by giving credence to antigay biases that Georgia law rejects.
Regardless of Mr. Mughelli’s attorney’s complaints about assertions of her client’s actual sexual orientation, or who he may or may not have slept with, for Lambda Legal, this is about clarifying the law on defamation and asserting the dignity of people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Outsports’ Cyd Ziegler told me in an email that he wasn’t aware of any other blogs who received the cease-and-desist letters, but said that he was grateful that his attorney–Cynthia Counts–and Lambda Legal were helping out bloggers who find themselves faces with these kinds of threats.
“Smaller blogs are easy targets for corporations or people with money because they know the other side doesn’t have the resources to fight back, even when the smaller entity completely protected by the law,” Ziegler said in an email.
This is not the first time that a celebrity has threatened a defamation suit after gay rumors surfaced. In April 2009, Howard K. Smith, the former partner of Anna Nicole Smith, had his defamation claims tossed out by a federal court in New York who said being called gay was not defamation. Actor Ron Livingston is currently suing a John Doe-defendant who edited Wikipedia entries suggesting Livingston, who is married to a woman, is gay.
Ziegler’s point about the chilling-effect these kinds of lawsuits have is key. There is no easier way to intimidate a blogger or writer who isn’t connected to a larger entity then with the threat of a lawsuit. The websites covering the Mughelli story have primarily been LGBT blogs, sports blogs, and gossip blogs focusing on African American celebrities. All are the kinds of entities that can easily be big-footed by the threat of a lawsuit.