Here’s a crazy story happening in my town in New York that shows what it means when we say that free speech is a fighting right– a principle that folks have to stand up for in real embattled situations or it evaporates. Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman who has media holdings across the country, has been slamming a small-town official here with legal letters threatening to sue her pants off for libel and defamation because in the midst of a political campaign she shared a Facebook post he didn’t like.
And that small-town official– gritty Stephanie Hawkins– has stood up to him for weeks, even as others quailed.
So what happened?
A month back, there was a hard-fought election campaign in the Hudson River village of Cold Spring, N.Y., (population, 2000) for two of five seats on the Board of Trustees. Hawkins is a sitting village trustee and an active Democrat. During the campaign, she backed a slate that sought greater accountability from local developers: Matt Francisco, an incumbent trustee, and Donald MacDonald.
The two men were up against a slate that got active support from the local paper, The Putnam County News & Recorder, or PCN&R. Ailes and his wife Elizabeth Ailes, who live in nearby Garrison, bought the paper in 2008, according to Gabe Sherman’s new book on Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room. Elizabeth Ailes is the publisher. (And, she says, the owner.)
As Sherman says in his book, Roger Ailes has used the paper to stoke the kinds of political/cultural battles that marked Ailes’s entry into politics, when he served Richard Nixon in the glorious years, 1968-1974 (till Watergate hit him “like a stomach punch”).
In the last week of the election campaign, the PCN&R accused the Hawkins side of dirty tricks in a report on a letter written in support of Francisco/Donald by the folksinger Dar Williams and her husband Michael Robinson, who have a house in the village. The two had offered to dish “dirt” on the Ailes candidates, and the paper’s front-page story, “Nasty Campaign Letter Surfaces,” sought to link the politicians to Williams and Robinson:
Francisco was outside their home Monday morning. And the PCN&R has confirmed that Mac Donald has attended meetings with Stephanie Hawkins, a current trustee, at Williams’ and Robinson’s house.
And this gem:
Francisco was recently seen in a restaurant on Main Street having a lengthy conversation with James Geppner [a critic of local development].
These reports on his movements in the last week of a campaign understandably upset Francisco.
Outraged, Francisco took to Facebook later that day and alleged that he was being trailed. “The Ailes newspaper and their candidates have gone too far. It is clear I’m being followed; My movements are being tracked and reported in their newspaper,” he wrote.
Then Hawkins shared Francisco’s Facebook post on her page, simply telling folks to read it. So did MacDonald. Writes Sherman:
That’s where things got weird. The next day, Peter Johnson, Ailes’s lawyer and a regular Fox & Friends guest-host, sent threatening legal letters to Dar Williams and her husband. The three Democratic politicians received legal letters as well.
Francisco and MacDonald took the post down. Stephanie Hawkins did not.
On March 18, Francisco and MacDonald lost to the Ailes-backed slate by 397-370 (on average).
But Ailes’s lawyer, who wears a second hat as an on-air analyst on Fox News, continued to pound Hawkins with legal threats. Philipstown.info has published the letters. The first. The second. The third.
Read them for yourself. You’d think that Hawkins had accused Ailes and his wife of Satanic acts on the Hudson River.
“You have intentionally, wrongfully, and maliciously defamed and disparaged our clients, and have encouraged others to defame and disparage our clients…. [T]hese false and fabricated statements were made and then republished by you with malicious intent to injure our clients in their trade, office and profession.”
The Aileses stated their innocence to a nearly comic degree:
Mr. Ailes and Mrs Ailes are not having you followed and are not tracking your movements or the movements of others…
Mr. Ailes and Mrs. Ailes have not, and have no interest in, spying on their neighbors.
Mr. Ailes and Mrs. Ailes have not, and have no interest in, “manufacturing phony scandals” in their home town or any other small community in the great United States of America.”
The letters went to Hawkins’s home and place of employment, Simon & Schuster (where she works in contracts). Ailes’ lawyer demanded a retraction and written apology from Hawkins
“acknowledging the impropriety of attempting to interfere with the PCNR’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”
Most of us would be terrified to get three letters like that. We’d think, does it really matter that I shared that post? Hey, it was just a line, telling folks to read something. What does it matter if I pull it? I’m up against a rich media emperor who is really angry at me. I have better things to spend my energy on than a goddamn Facebook post.
But Hawkins didn’t eat her words. She felt she had a right to comment on an ongoing political campaign. She got First Amendment lawyers, Norman Siegel and Steven Hyman, who wrote to Ailes’s firm that she had a right to comment on matters of public interest and the onslaught of letters was a “calculated effort to intimidate” her.
Then the Ailes paper broke the story on April 2. “Hawkins Continues Divisive Actions.”
Trustee Stephanie Hawkins faces imminent legal action as she continues to have false information about the PCN&R and its owner’s family on her “Stephanie Hawkins, Trustee” Facebook page.
Hawkins has been served with three separate Cease and Desist notices but has failed to remove the libelous material…
This is delicious:
the attacks on the PCN&R are simply an effort to chill the newspaper’s reporting…
Hawkins appears resolute to force a legal confrontation for herself and possibly the village.
Since then, the story made it to New York Mag and Philipstown.info, and Hawkins has been flooded with support from all over, but Ailes has yet to back down on his threats.
New York Magazine reports that he did send a letter to Dar Williams saying he’d let it go.
“Roger wrote this letter. He forgave us as a Christian for the pain we’ve caused his family,” Williams told me. “He said we had lost the election for our candidates with our letter, and that was punishment enough.”
Hawkins has reminded people of what matters in a blogpost titled, Impressed & Grateful:
The majority of people I’ve been in contact with have expressed concern for me personally, but inevitably they’ve expressed deeper concerns about attempts by money and power to thwart individual Constitutional rights, to corrupt our local political experience, degrade our civic involvement and ultimately, reduce the quality of our lives in community with others.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.