The Wasau Pilot & Review faces $150,000 in legal fees, even though a judge dismissed the lawsuit against the newspaper.
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A Wisconsin politician filed a defamation suit against a local newspaper, and the suit was dismissed.
Even so, the legal fees from the lawsuit threaten to bankrupt the The Wausau Pilot & Review.
It follows a trend of politicians filing defamation suits that don’t have to succeed to do damage.
Politicians across the board may be honing in on using defamation lawsuits as a form of punishment against the media reports they object to.
Even when those lawsuits fail, the legal fees still do immense damage to smaller, vulnerable publications.
Such is the case in Wausau, Wisconsin, where Cory Tomczyk filed a defamation suit after a 2021 report from The Wausau Pilot & Review that he had used an anti-gay slur toward a 13-year-old during a community meeting, The New York Times reported.
Tomczyk – a businessman who has since been elected a Republican state senator – denied the reporting and demanded a retraction, the Times reported. The newspaper stood by its reporting, leading to Tomczyk’s defamation suit.
A judge dismissed the case in April, though Tomczyk has appealed the decision, court records show.
Still, the nonprofit newspaper has amassed at least $150,000 in legal fees – nearly matching the paper’s annual operating budget of about $180,000, the Pilot & Review reported.
“It’s extremely frustrating that this kind of money is just being completely wasted,” publisher Shereen Siewert said, per the Pilot & Review. “It’s money that could go to boots-on-the-ground reporting.”
Tomczyk’s attorney did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A troubling trend
The Wisconsin case isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last dubious defamation case brought on by a politician.
Former President Donald Trump, who has spent years dismissing the media outlets he dislikes as “fake news,” has filed multiple unsuccessful defamation lawsuits against media outlets, the Times reported. His latest $475 million defamation suit against CNN was dismissed last month.
Previously, in 2020, his campaign sued The Washington Post and The New York Times for defamation.
Earlier this year, Florida Republicans championed legislation that would make it easier to sue for defamation. Though the bill died in committee, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential candidate along with Trump, hailed it as a way to target “legacy media defamation practices.”
Just weeks ago, Mississippi’s former Gov. Phil Bryant filed a defamation suit against a local newspaper whose Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporting tied him to a major welfare scandal in the state.
One potential solution against such lawsuits is anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws, which can protect reporters and news organizations from expensive, unfounded defamation lawsuits, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A total of 32 states plus the District of Columbia have anti-SLAPP laws on the books, per the RCFP. Wisconsin is not among them.