Lawsuits are a headache for anyone, even a major network like HBO that has the legal team and financial backing to weather them. On Sunday night, John Oliver talked about someone who has sued Last Week Tonight, news networks, and even those who worked for his own company and suffered for it.
In 2017, Oliver did a segment unearthing the (alleged) diabolical dealings of Bob Murray’s coal company, Murray Energy, which was then the largest privately held coal company in the U.S. Murray subsequently sued Oliver and HBO for defamation over the statements Oliver made, and HBO stood behind Last Week Tonight through the two-year legal debacle. Oliver has been unable to discuss the proceedings or Murray since, but as Murray recently dropped the lawsuit, Oliver prepared quite a show for this special day.
The main subject of the night wasn’t Murray directly, but rather something he employs on the regular: SLAPP suits. SLAAP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which Oliver explains to be frivolous suits with no legal merit designed to stifle public debate or dissent. The point of these types of lawsuits isn’t even to win; it’s to put the defendant through a painful and arduous experience that discourages them or others from speaking against Murray and the like—the like being people like Donald Trump. “We’re gonna sue you like you’ve never been sued before,” Trump said in a clip, as he is in favor of tweaking laws that make SLAAP suits easier. Case in point: Trump literally sued journalist Tim L. O’Brien for $5 billion after O’Brien stated that Trump’s net worth is much lower than he claims, even though Trump knew he couldn’t win. Trump admitted to just wanting to make the journalist’s life “miserable.”
These numbers sound ridiculous to the point of hilarity, but SLAAP suits force dragged-out legal quagmires on people who may have far less resources than the plaintiff with which to fight them. Residents of Uniontown, Ala., were sued for $30 million after posting concerns on Facebook about toxic coal ash dumped in their town. The ACLU stepped in to defend these residents and the suit was dropped, but it nonetheless left a mark on the psyches of the residents who were speaking up. “The problem with scare tactics [is] that they work,” Oliver states.
Murray has sued at least nine journalists, not just Oliver, from 2001 to 2015, and has thus created a “culture of fear” that leaves both reporters and civilians afraid to talk about him. Oliver, for one, has had enough of it. Oliver points out that the Supreme Court has consistently defended the use of “loose, figurative language that cannot reasonably be understood to convey facts,” and takes full advantage for a fantastic finish that makes this episode one of his best. Watch the show below and revisit the episode that started it all here.