Michael J. Gottlieb can by no means bear in mind the precise quantity — it’s $148,169,000— {that a} jury ordered Rudolph W. Giuliani to pay the Georgia election employees Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. However Ms. Freeman’s phrases after the December 2023 victory are indelible to him.

“Don’t waste your time being indignant at those that did this to me and my daughter,” mentioned Ms. Freeman 65, who along with her daughter Ms. Moss, 39, was falsely accused by Mr. Giuliani of aiding an imagined plot to steal the 2020 presidential election.

“We’re greater than conquerors.”

Lower than a decade in the past, the 2 ladies would have struggled to discover a lawyer. However Mr. Gottlieb, a accomplice on the agency Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a former affiliate counsel within the Obama White Home, represented them totally free. Satisfied that viral lies threaten public discourse and democracy, he’s on the forefront of a small however rising cadre of attorneys deploying defamation, one of many oldest areas of the legislation, as a weapon in opposition to a tide of political disinformation.

Mr. Gottlieb has additionally represented the proprietor of the Washington pizzeria focused by “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorists in addition to the brother of Seth Wealthy, a younger Democratic Nationwide Committee staffer whose 2016 homicide ignited bogus theories implicating his family. Within the Giuliani case, Mr. Gottlieb, his legislation accomplice Meryl Governski and different members of his group labored with Defend Democracy, a nonpartisan group that pushes for legal guidelines and insurance policies to counter what it sees as authoritarian threats.

Earlier than the Trump period and the explosion of social media, although, such circumstances had been nearly nonexistent.

“The brand new data panorama we’re in is a little bit bit just like the Wild West — a lawless area,” mentioned Ian Bassin, a co-founder of Defend Democracy. Legal professionals, he mentioned, have turned to defamation, which is legally outlined as any false data, both revealed, broadcast or spoken, that harms the fame of an individual, enterprise or group. “It’s one of the vital efficient and solely methods for coping with these out-and-out falsehoods,” Mr. Bassin mentioned.

Up to now few years, greater than a dozen high-profile defamation circumstances have made their approach by means of the courts. A majority have been introduced in opposition to defendants on the proper, however the proper brings lawsuits too, usually in opposition to media organizations.

In 2020 and 2021, The Washington Put up, CNN and NBC settled a defamation case introduced by Nick Sandmann, a Kentucky highschool scholar, who mentioned the retailers had wrongly described his encounter with a Native American elder as a racially tinged confrontation. Mr. Sandmann’s go well with in opposition to different retailers, together with The New York Instances, ended final week when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Payouts have been significantly giant for defamation circumstances in opposition to the proper. In January the lawyer Roberta Kaplan defeated former President Donald J. Trump in courtroom when a jury ordered him to pay $83 million for defaming her client, E. Jean Carroll, a author he sexually abused. Final yr attorneys from the agency Susman Godfrey secured a $787.5 million settlement for Dominion Voting Methods from Fox Information, one of many greatest ever in a defamation case, after Fox aired bogus theories falsely linking the corporate to election fraud. In late 2022 Sandy Hook households defamed by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones gained a total of nearly $1.5 billion from juries in Texas and Connecticut, although Mr. Jones has but to pay them something.

In different circumstances, the folks harmed, like Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, can’t afford attorneys or battle to search out corporations prepared to pursue defendants unable or proof against paying massive damages, like Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Gottlieb has tried to fill that hole.

“The price of bringing a defamation go well with to trial could be monumental, usually exceeding a quarter-million {dollars}’ price of bills, to say nothing of the worth of legal professional time,” mentioned Mark Bankston, a lawyer for a few of the Sandy Hook households defamed by Mr. Jones.

Mr. Gottlieb and his group seek advice from their circumstances as a “interest” in service to these whose lives and reputations have been broken by folks with energy and enormous on-line followings. “I’ve all the time despised bullies that choose on defenseless or seemingly defenseless folks,” Mr. Gottlieb, 47, mentioned in an interview in his Ok Avenue workplace in Washington. “There are such a lot of methods to make your political factors with out endangering particular person folks’s lives.”

Mr. Gottlieb’s day job is full of the highly effective shopper checklist extra typical of massive Washington legislation corporations. He has represented Venezuela’s Citgo petroleum firm; helped the billionaire Steven A. Cohen beat a potential lifetime ban on managing client money after accusations of insider buying and selling at Mr. Cohen’s former hedge fund; and labored with President Biden’s son Hunter on behalf of a Romanian actual property tycoon whose seven-year jail sentence for corruption was later vacated by a Romanian court.

“I perceive there are undoubtedly individuals who would say, ‘Wait a minute — litigation for Citgo is just not the identical because the litigation you’re doing for Ruby and Shaye,’” he mentioned. “I really feel lucky to have had a profession the place I’ve had all kinds of circumstances and have a follow that works completely different ability units and completely different elements of my mind.

“Nonetheless folks wish to give it some thought and have a look at it’s kind of wonderful with me.”

Mr. Gottlieb, who was a clerk for Justice John Paul Stevens and served on an Obama administration anti-corruption activity drive in Afghanistan, had his first foray into the post-truth world in 2016. That was when Mr. Jones and his Infowars outlet unfold the lie that Hillary Clinton and Democratic Social gathering operatives had been working a toddler intercourse trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizzeria owned by James Alefantis.

In December of that yr, a person who had been binging on Infowars “Pizzagate” episodes fired a rifle inside the restaurant. Nobody was injured, however the gunman’s journey to Washington to avenge an imagined crime foreshadowed a collection of violent assaults by conspiracy theorists, together with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol rebel.

Mr. Jones insisted that the First Modification protected the lies he had broadcast, like most defendants in these circumstances. However threatened with a lawsuit, he made an on-air retraction and eliminated all Pizzagate content material from Infowars’ web site and social media channels. The total settlement stays confidential.

Quickly after the Pizzagate case, Mr. Gottlieb represented Aaron Wealthy, whose brother Seth Wealthy, 27, labored for the Democratic Nationwide Committee and was gunned down in a botched theft in 2016. The case stays unsolved, and wild theories that Seth Wealthy was killed by Democrats unfold from on-line fever swamps to Fox Information. Aaron Wealthy and his dad and mom had been implicated within the plots, doxxed and harassed.

“If this had occurred to me or my brother or sister and any individual was doing this to my dad and mom, I might go ballistic,” Mr. Gottlieb mentioned. “And nobody was serving to them.”

In 2018 Mr. Gottlieb and Aaron Wealthy sued The Washington Instances in addition to an web provocateur, Matt Sofa, and a businessman, Ed Butowsky, for spreading falsehoods that the 2 brothers had offered D.N.C. paperwork in a plot that resulted in Seth Wealthy’s homicide. Mr. Wealthy ultimately acquired a confidential settlement that included a retraction of the falsehoods unfold by each males and the newspaper, in addition to an apology to the Wealthy household. Mr. Wealthy’s dad and mom retained Susman Godfrey and sued Fox Information. They obtained a confidential money settlement, however no apology.”

The Wealthy case had taken years. At one level Mr. Gottlieb was named in a sweeping defamation lawsuit filed by one of many defendants, which was later dropped.

The aftermath of the 2020 election introduced extra calls from potential purchasers. Mr. Gottlieb appealed for assist to Mr. Bassin, the co-founder of Defend Democracy, who had served with Mr. Gottlieb within the Obama White Home Counsel’s Workplace.

Lower than two months later, Mr. Gottlieb and his group had been writing the criticism in Ruby Freeman, et al., v. Rudolph Giuliani.

In his frenzied public scramble to make his case that the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani, the previous president’s lawyer, had unfold the false story that Ms. Freeman and her daughter Ms. Moss had colluded to falsify outcomes whereas counting ballots in Georgia. He falsely claimed {that a} video displaying Ms. Freeman handing a small merchandise to her daughter — a ginger mint — was the 2 ladies exchanging USB thumb drives “as in the event that they’re vials of heroin and cocaine.”

Mr. Trump echoed the bogus allegations. In an notorious taped telephone name with Georgia election officers, Mr. Trump named Ms. Freeman repeatedly, calling her a “skilled vote scammer” and “hustler.”

Threats poured in to the 2 ladies. Individuals known as them traitors and, utilizing racial slurs, demanded they be lynched or shot. Others banged on Ms. Freeman’s entrance door and lurked outdoors her residence, forcing her into hiding. Ms. Moss had to surrender her job as an election employee and struggled to search out work.

Mr. Giuliani mentioned he would show his innocence. However he didn’t submit court-ordered paperwork, testify or name witnesses. Within the courtroom, he fiddled along with his telephone and rolled his eyes whereas the 2 ladies described their terror.

In December, a jury in federal courtroom in Washington ordered Mr. Giuliani to pay Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss the $148 million. The case was placed on maintain after Mr. Giuliani declared chapter, and Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss at the moment are suing Mr. Giuliani once more, for his continued false statements about them.

Regulation for Reality, a part of Defend Democracy, has within the meantime filed defamation fits in opposition to the makers of the election conspiracy idea movie “20,000 Mules”; James O’Keefe, the previous chief of Venture Veritas, a right-wing group recognized for its sting operations; and Kari Lake, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, on behalf of individuals smeared by lies Ms. Lake informed concerning the 2020 election.

Regardless of the exercise, attorneys who see themselves as crusaders in opposition to lies should not declaring victory. Their circumstances are excessive profile and goal key disinformation spreaders, however they acknowledge that they don’t put a dent in additional basic widespread disinformation, like false statements about Covid vaccines.

“I feel these lawsuits could also be efficient in stemming a few of the worst viral disinformation,” mentioned Katie Fallow, a senior counsel on the Knight First Modification Institute at Columbia College. “However there could also be limits to how efficient these lawsuits could be when there are different incentives, significantly political ones, to maintain spreading it.”

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed analysis.



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