The owner of a local whiskey bar has filed a lawsuit against two women who have accused him of sexual assault and two former employees who staged a walkout at the bar.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday evening in Jefferson Circuit Court on behalf of Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar alleges his business and reputation were irreparably damaged by the fallout from a Facebook post that called Landan a rapist.
The lawsuit alleges the accusers made false statements, knew they were false, and made them with “reckless disregard.” Landan claims he suffered damage to his reputation, embarrassment and emotional distress.
WFPL is not naming the women who accused Landan because they are alleging sexual assault and haven’t gone on the record. Attorneys for the women have not returned our requests for comment.
For decades, the legal system has often failed women who have accused men of sexual assault. For this reason, some feel outlets like Facebook are their best option to tell their stories.
But social media can be a double-edged sword. In a moment where it provides a megaphone for these stories — everything from women sharing stories of sexual harassment with the hashtag #metoo to the viral meme that called Landan a rapist — the legal landscape for these cases is more complicated than ever.
Colby Bruno is a senior attorney with the Victim Rights Center, a nonprofit that represents victims of sexual assault. She said she advises her clients to think very carefully before posting any allegations on social media. That’s because often, they face a choice between a public social media post and actually pursuing legal recourse against an alleged assailant.
“Because social media is something that cannot be undone,” Bruno said. “So to me, the choice is you can try to try your case in the court of public opinion, or you can go through the prosecution and try to try your case there. Or you could try to bring a civil case.”
Social Media Feels ‘Consequence-Free’
Besides filing suit against the two women who publicly accused Landan of rape and drugging drinks on Facebook, the lawsuit also includes what it calls an “unknown number of defaming Jane and John Does.”
That means Landan could potentially also sue anyone who repeated the allegations — and there were a lot of those people. As of Thursday morning, the original post had been shared nearly 800 times. More than 1,300 people had reacted to the post in some way, and others had posted separately about the allegations.
Michigan attorney Enrico Schaefer said these instances of alleged online defamation are happening more frequently. He said his firm, Traverse Legal, hears from more than 100 people every month considering pursuing such cases.
“There is a dynamic created by social media which feels very consequence-free,” Schaefer said. “And creating consequences is one of the things a plaintiff, the business owner in this case, is trying to accomplish. Because when people can say whatever they want without consequence, they’re fearless and oftentimes sloppy.”
Bruno said sometimes this can come down to a single word, or the distinction between sharing an experience like “I was raped,” versus calling someone else a “rapist.”
In these sorts of cases, Schaefer said it’s also a question of whether the person who believes they’ve been defamed wants to draw more attention to the allegations.
“The challenge here for anyone who’s ever been defamed on the internet is illustrated by this case,” he said. “You have a choice of trying to make it go away, trying to get it removed and just taking your lumps and moving forward, or filing a lawsuit, having the press pick it up, and now your 300 person shares have become 30,000 or 300,000.”
That’s true in this case: Media outlets including WFPL News resisted reporting on the anonymous allegations that began circulating weeks ago, in part because the women making them declined to speak on the record about the allegations they made on Facebook. The initial accuser had also made the claim under a fake name, further complicating the situation. Now, those same media outlets are reporting on the lawsuit, thus circulating the allegations about Landan.
Kentucky Law Could Favor Landan
To prove defamation, Landan’s attorney Andrew Horne will have to prove the statements made about Landan were factually incorrect. Opinions are protected under the First Amendment, but statements of fact are not. Horne declined a further request for comment.
Schaefer said for people who simply clicked “share” on the original meme, it’s a toss-up whether they could be included in the lawsuit. But for people who also shared stories about Landan, they could be sued, too. And the burden will be on Landan’s attorney’s to prove their claims are false.
This might sound like a large burden of proof. But because Kentucky doesn’t have what’s known as an “anti-SLAPP” statute, the economics could make it difficult for Landan’s accusers to get to the point where they present their proof in court.
SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” In some states, these laws apply only to reporters; in others, they’re much broader. But in every case, they allow defendants to file motions to dismiss, and the case is dealt with on the merits at the beginning rather than the end. They’re meant to deter lawsuits that are without merit; lawsuits that may be intended to intimidate people.
But for states without anti-SLAPP laws — like Kentucky — cases go through a lengthy, expensive process before they even get to the point where a judge or jury determines an outcome. And Schaefer said that means everyone but maybe the richest 2 percent of Americans probably couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars it would take to get that far in the process.
“So you’ve got 98 percent of the U.S. population who couldn’t defend themselves even if they’re in the right,” he said. “That’s the point of the anti-SLAPP statute is to preclude litigation being used as leverage.”
(After this story was published, a local law firm offered to represent the women being sued by Landan free of charge.)
Lost in much of this are two women who claim they were assaulted by a Louisville bar owner. Colby Bruno of the Victim Rights Center said there’s still very much a culture in the United States that tends to believe women lie about being sexually assaulted.
Over the past few months, powerful men including former “Today” show host Matt Lauer, producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K., Senator Al Franken and public radio host Garrison Keillor have been accused of acts ranging from sexual harassment to rape. They’ve all responded in different ways, and some have outright denied the allegations.
Bruno said part of changing the culture around sexual assault and harassment, besides identifying perpetrators, is when men come forward and admit they’ve made mistakes.
“For me, I was surprised and partly proud of, I know that sounds so bizarre, of the men who came forward publicly and said ‘I did do this, I have a problem and I’m trying to get help,’” Bruno said. “Because that helps move the conversation forward. That says there are some people who have done this, are guilty of it and are ashamed of it, who no longer feel entitled to take that. And that to me, is the beginning of a culture shift.”
This story has been updated.