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Roger Ailes demands NY village official take down ‘Facebook’ post. She says no

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Stephanie Hawkins

Stephanie Hawkins

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.

The story came out last week– in New York magazine and Philipstown.info— and Hawkins has been overwhelmed by public support.

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.

Francisco, l, and MacDonald

Francisco, l, and 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.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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7 Responses

  1. pabelmont on April 16, 2014, 1:40 pm

    US S/C considers ban on lies in political campaigns..

    Which way would this cut? Were these facebook thingies part of political campaigns, or close enough? And who was the liar? Or is the allegation of libel of the (ancient) “the greater the truth the greater the libel” sort?

  2. American on April 16, 2014, 7:05 pm

    She should sue them. For a obscene amount of money—enough to give them nightmares.

  3. dbroncos on April 16, 2014, 11:09 pm

    … Watergate hit him “like a stomach punch”

    A punch that disappeared up to the elbow.

  4. Krauss on April 17, 2014, 3:51 am

    Thanks for these updates. I hope she stands up to these attempts to silence her.
    And I’m still chuckling at the thought that you live in the vincinity of Ailes.

  5. Woody Tanaka on April 17, 2014, 7:18 am

    I think that the State Supreme Courts, attorney ethics agencies, etc., have to start stepping in to disbar lawyers who send out c&d’s where there is not even arguable merit, like this case. The lawyer has to say “no, they have a right to say this” and if they don’t, they shouldn’t be lawyers anymore.

  6. Concerned Resident on April 17, 2014, 10:19 am

    First of all, there are a couple of inaccuracies in the story. The candidates you refer to as the “Ailes” candidates, were not backed by the Ailes, nor did they get “active support”. They may have been candidates that the Ailes wanted to win, but the candidates ran on their own accord and won without the help of anyone, they won for being honest, hardworking and because they are willing to speak to anyone no matter what the opinion. Secondly, for Mr. Francisco to state “the Ailes and their candidates went too far”, what exactly did the candidates do? A very nasty letter was send to kids in college stating that they had “more significant dirt” on their opponents. Who was the victim here? Also, did you know that if Ms. Hawkins doesn’t like a comment or a question that you post to her facebook page (even if it’s respectful), she will delete it and block you? What about free speech? I thought all the trustees work for ALL residents of the village. Did you know that after the election was over, one of the winning candidates approached Ms. Hawkins, reached out with his hand and said “I look forward to working with you Stephanie” and she pushed it away and said “I bet you do!” in a nasty tone? Did you know that a few days after the election the winning candidates invited their opponents out to their victory party, they accepted and all shook hands and had a drink together. Ms. Hawkins did not attend or attempt to congratulate her new colleagues.

    Now, this story is all over the internet, Facebook, etc. Yes, there are many that do not know Ms. Hawkins who are siding with her, showing their support, but the reality is next year she is up for re-election and the people who actually live and vote in the village she lives in are getting fed up that national politics are constantly brought into our community. Voters this year made that clear. Next year won’t be different.

  7. LeaNder on April 17, 2014, 11:22 am

    Phil, I like this a lot and I get the general drift.

    My problem with this is the following. In your private The Assimilationist meanderings, which I liked a lot, although I had the impression you struggled with a basic illusion, the context was clear. The characters where easy to grasp, if it was enlarged beyond the troubles between husband and wife (favorite Jeans), e.g. the chess game. But the moment politics or the personal or ideological clashes between people enter the scene, matters are either more difficult to follow or some of us have firmly established defenses in that context.

    I remember wondering about that, when I was confronted with the activities against Norman Finkelstein. I respect him highly, but I found it absolutely impossible to read his side of the issue. Dershowitz. My brainwaves simply twisted up.

    I hate to be drawn into fights. This may be a really personal issue.

    But strictly, beyond simply getting what you are talking about. I wonder if any native speaker got precisely what in fact was happening, if he did not follow the links or looked into the story more closely. That said:

    Hats off!- Stephanie Hawkins. I don’t completely understand. But I love people that have “balls of steel”, if you don’t mind me using that imagery?

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