Almost a year ago, in “#MeToo and the Atheist Community“, I wrote about creepy atheist men who’ve been caught out by the #MeToo wave of resurgent feminism. One of them was Richard Carrier, who was apparently a big supporter of social justice until it interfered with his ability to get laid.
After several allegations of inappropriate conduct (and one admission that Carrier made himself, namely that he made a pass at a student at a Secular Student Alliance event in violation of a SSA policy against exactly this), the SSA removed him from its speakers’ bureau, and the Skepticon conference banned him. He responded by suing Skepticon, several bloggers including PZ Myers, and two entire atheist blog networks that reported on the allegations, which is a dead giveaway that this was about spite and wounded pride rather than any concern for justice.
It took the better part of two years and cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, but last week, his lawsuit was thrown out.
It’s good news, but not unqualified good news. The lawsuit wasn’t dismissed on the merits, but on a technical issue of jurisdiction: an Ohio court ruled that Carrier had filed in the wrong place and that the injuries he alleged didn’t have a specific connection to Ohio. Carrier has loudly blustered about refiling separate lawsuits in the defendants’ home states, although he qualified that with “if I can find affordable counsel”.
In all the states where he might want to refile, the statute of limitations is expired. Normally, that would put an end to his nonsense (and it still might). However, there’s a legal doctrine called equitable tolling which allows the statute of limitations to be extended if there was a good-faith reason why a lawsuit couldn’t have been filed earlier. Generally, this covers situations like if the plaintiff was a minor or imprisoned at the time and was unable to assert their rights, or if the defendant went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the existence of the harm.
The question is whether equitable tolling covers the case of “I filed my lawsuit in the wrong place and now I want another bite at the apple”. It seems that different courts have reached conflicting answers on this question, although according to this page, that argument has been rejected by courts in California at least.
A bigger problem facing Carrier, if he’s foolish enough to try again, is that all the states where he might want to refile have anti-SLAPP laws of varying strength. Ohio is one of a minority of states that have no anti-SLAPP law at all; you can decide for yourself whether that was a factor in his initial choice of venue. Many anti-SLAPP laws provide for a quick dismissal of frivolous cases and/or automatically award attorneys’ fees to the defendant.
It’s blatant hypocrisy to claim you support feminism, social justice and equality, only to turn around and file a lawsuit against the first woman who accuses you of inappropriate behavior. The allegations against Carrier weren’t nearly as serious as those made against some other high-profile atheist men, and I’m sure he could have recovered from them if he’d accepted censure and mended his behavior. Instead, he lashed out. Whatever arrogance or egotism that’s led Carrier down this path, he’d be well-advised to realize that he’s only made it worse for himself. No matter what he does, no court verdict is going to restore his reputation, and it’s his own actions that have trashed it beyond repair.
Anti-SLAPP laws aside, this case is an excellent example of the brokenness of the American legal system. Defending yourself against a lawsuit can be ruinously expensive for anyone who isn’t super-rich. If you’re up against an adversary with money to burn, or a deranged person willing to spend themselves into bankruptcy, they can make it an exhausting ordeal by filing one burdensome and intrusive motion after another, each one requiring more court dates, more hearings, more responses from the other side. Even professional media organizations find it difficult to defend themselves from such tactics, regardless of whether the suit has any merit.
Under these circumstances, many defendants make a rational choice to settle just because it’s cheaper than fighting. I’m glad that PZ, Skepticon and the rest held fast. This was a wasteful and unnecessary fight and we should never have had to have it. But at least it sends a message to sleazeballs everywhere who think they can get away with anything by abusing the legal system to intimidate their victims and critics into silence.