A local outlet in Detroit has been saddled with $10,000 in legal fees after successfully fending off a libel lawsuit from a man who alleges he was defamed in an article describing his firing.
In a story published last August, Deadline Detroit wrote that Paul Marcum, a local parent, had been fired from his tennis coaching job at a private club after he did a Nazi salute and said, “Heil Hitler,” at a school board meeting about mandatory masks. The story was based primarily on reporting done by another local outlet, the Detroit Metro Times.
Despite a note from the school district trustees and a police report confirming the events of the meeting, Marcum sued Deadline Detroit and the Metro Times, as well as Newsweek, Kos Media and Newser, for defamation five months later. Attorney Jan Jeffrey Rubinstein said he and Marcum had reached out to the outlets to try and “correct the false narrative that was being spread.” But Deadline Detroit editor Allan Lengel said the first time he heard from Marcum was when he was served with the lawsuit in February.
Defamation cases against news outlets are notoriously difficult to win. Plaintiffs must generally prove that an outlet acted with negligence to report false information that caused them reputational harm. In cases where the plaintiff is a public figure, the standard for winning a defamation lawsuit is even higher. (In this case, Marcum did not qualify as a public figure.)
Oakland County Circuit judge Jeffery Matis ruled in Deadline Detroit’s favor last week, finding that the article was “substantially true.” He has also dismissed three of the other lawsuits. The last one is still pending.
“It’s just kind of outrageous that a lawyer who knows nothing about the law would file a suit like that,” said Lengel, who pointed out that Marcum had admitted to police that he gave a Nazi salute at the meeting. “Unless their strategy was to try to get a nuisance fee from every publication, it was just kind of baffling that we got a lawsuit.”
Lengel, who has worked as a journalist for over 40 years, including stints at The Washington Post and The Detroit News, said this is the first time he has been sued. It’s also the first lawsuit that Deadline Detroit — a digital for-profit newsroom that publishes a mix of original reporting, including investigations, and aggregations — has faced since Lengel started the outlet in 2012 with journalist Bill McGraw.
Even though Deadline Detroit won, the experience has been overwhelming and time-consuming, Lengel said. They owe $10,000 in legal fees. That might be practically “nothing” for a larger publication, but for an outlet that only has three full-time staff, that is a “significant” part of salary for the month, he said.
Deadline Detroit tried to ask Matis to sanction Marcum, arguing that he and his lawyer had misled the court by citing outdated libel laws. But Matis denied their request for sanctions and attorney fees.
Rubinstein wrote in an email that he was “disappointed” with the court’s ruling on the lawsuit.
“My client is neither an antisemite nor a racist. He believed that the mandates being debated at that school board meeting were an invasion of his and his family’s personal freedoms. Mr. Marcum was likening these mandates to fascism and/or nazi-ism and that was the message that he was attempting to communicate,” Rubinstein wrote. “Unfortunately, the portrayals of his actions in the media and on social media resulted in millions of people alleging or believing that he is a racist or antisemite.”
“All he has ever wanted to do has been to attempt to mitigate the damage that this portrayal has caused him, both personally and professionally.”
Deadline Detroit is currently fundraising to cover its legal fees.
“It’s great that we won, and hopefully it’ll send a message to other lawyers that you can’t just file frivolous lawsuits like that,” Lengel said. “But it would be a better message if the judge inflicted a little pain for filing something that was clearly frivolous and really just served as a waste of resources for everybody involved.”