On the Ground With Gabe is a FingerLakes1.com blog that “takes you behind the headlines, practices, techniques and ethics of all things journalism.”
“Personally, it’s vindication for me and the Geneva Believer,” Jim Meaney told FingerLakes1.com.
On May 10, Ontario County Supreme Court Judge Brian Dennis granted a motion to dismiss a yearlong defamation case against the Geneva Believer and its publisher — resulting in the Massa Construction to cover all of the defendant’s legal costs, attorney fees and damages in accordance with Civil Rights Law 70-a, New York’s Anti-SLAPP statute.
Just before the coronavirus pandemic began, the owner of Geneva Believer received a cease and desist letter from Anthony Galli, the construction company’s lawyer, accusing him of libel and defamation over several articles he published that depict Geneva City Council allowing possible conflicts of interest to occur.
However, Meaney firmly believed he was “meticulous” in his research, acting cautiously while expressing his own opinions about Massa and its relationship with the City of Geneva. That aforementioned letter demanded for Meaney to remove articles from online, but none were ever identified as defamatory whatsoever.
“At first, I honestly didn’t take it seriously, because it was so absurd and I knew that I hadn’t defamed or libeled anyone,” Meaney remembered.
Seeking consultation among peers within the journalism profession, Meaney contacted newsrooms leaders including FL1 News Director Josh Durso, advising Meaney to contact Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic. It was founded in 2018 to assist independent citizens journalists like himself — who were facing similar First Amendment-related legal challenges.
Their clinic helped file the response to the alleged cease and desist, but it wasn’t over. The Geneva-based construction company filed a complaint against Meaney. That’s when Michael Grygiel, co-counsel of Greenberg Traurig, and other lawyers on behalf of Meaney asked Massa to withdraw their complaint — pleading that the First Amendment protections apply.
Even after that argument, however, an amended complaint had been filed — requesting for ten articles to be removed immediately and a temporary restraining order.
It wasn’t until June 11 of last year when Judge Dennis denied Massa’s request for the restraining order, insisting that it would “violate the First Amendment,” according to Meaney.
Months later, the clinic continued researching his case, which led to Cornell’s legal team filing a motion to dismiss the suit in August 2020. And the oral arguments occurred remotely in December — resulting in the dismissal of their case over a year later.
In the end, he did “nothing wrong,” and even though he “knew” in his heart that the county judge would rule in his favor, it was still “a stressful experience.”
Now, Meaney is glad that those who have “attacked” his credibility “almost gleefully” by reminding the public about his ongoing defamation case can no longer “be able to use that particular smear against me anymore” or the Geneva Believer platform — since the lawsuit has been resolved.
However, that doesn’t seem to be case just yet. The Finger Lakes Times reports that Massa “will absolutely be appealing” Dennis’ dismissal — even though it seems highly unlikely that the New York Court of Appeals will find their case actionable, according to the county judge’s decision.
New York adopted its first version of the anti-SLAPP laws in 1992 — and the Empire State’s statute have only gotten stronger over time.
Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed Assembly Bill A5991A, Senate Bill S52A into law on November 10, which initially overwhelmingly passed the New York State Legislature in Albany after a 57-3 vote on July 22, 2020. The pair of bills “requires awarding of costs and attorney fees in frivolous action involving public petition and participation.”
The bills also broadened the scope of “public interest” matters beyond plaintiffs seeking public permits, zoning changes or other entitlements from a government body, as previously defined by the former anti-SLAPP law.
Now, the newly-amended statute even covers cases involving “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest” or “any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public interest . . . .”
In other words, the actual legal definition of “public interest” in relation to New York’s anti-SLAPP law has evolved to include anything but “a purely private matter.”
It gained widespread support among journalism organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Time’s Up Now, New York Civil Liberties Union, Authors Guild and The New York Times editorial board.
In an opinion piece titled “The Legal System Should Not Be a Tool for Bullies,” The New York Times editorial board believed that “an effective anti-SLAPP statute for New York is long overdue.”
“A strong statute in New York State would be a critical step in the right direction,” the New York Times editorial board wrote. “The state is home to many of the nation’s major news media and a host of powerful institutions.”
Adam P. Cohen and Derek Borchardt at the New York Law Journal considered the statutory shift as changing “one of the country’s narrowest [anti-SLAPP laws] to perhaps the strongest.”
The recently expanded anti-SLAPP law bars plaintiffs from accruing any damages in libel cases unless they’re able to show “by clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant made statements that were knowingly false or “with reckless disregard,” according to New York Civil Rights Law § 76-a(2).
“I’m honored and happy that my case will help safeguard the First Amendment rights of other independent citizen journalists in the future,” Meaney said. “No one should be bullied and intimidated by those who use the legal system to prevent the truth from being heard.”
At times, Meaney couldn’t even believe that Grygiel and his entire team “did all this” for him, while the clinic continues providing “incredibly necessary and vital work” when it comes to protecting, preserving the rights of the free press.
“One minute, I was just a working-class guy who didn’t have the financial resources to go toe-to-toe in court with a multi-million dollar construction company. The next minute, I had a team of law students and top-flight First Amendment attorneys in my corner,” Meaney explained.
But Meaney’s long-standing legal battle is a much bigger moment than solely for himself, realizing the gravity of that decision in the name of defending the First Amendment — solely for the sake of Geneva and his online readership.
“Now, the community knows that those who have power and influence can’t always get away with trying to intimidate or bully their critics,” he added. “And while it can seem like the First Amendment is under attack all the time in America, it still matters and it’s one of the core freedoms that we have.”
When asked about what’s next for the Geneva Believer, Meaney admittedly revealed that he plans on taking a break for a little while, but promises to eventually return and keep working the way that he’s “always done.”
“I plan to catch my breath for a bit, then continue doing the work that I’ve always done, the same way I’ve always done it,” Meaney mentioned. “I’ve always been mindful of what kind of information is protected speech so I’m not going to change anything.”
And although the way he’s “always done” here in Geneva has drawn controversy — that’s the type of journalism he appreciates, admires and even attempts to emulate.
“To me, truth is the most important thing in life, even if the truth is unpleasant,” Meaney said. “Those with influence and power don’t often like the truth to be told, and many times, they can use their resources to obscure the truth. But in the end, the truth always wins.”