MSNBC's Joy Reid Faces Call for Deposition About Trump Bias

Joy Reid - H - 2018

A defamation lawsuit against Joy Reid may have avoided one high-stakes legal issue only to raise another. On Monday, Roslyn La Liberte asked a New York federal judge to allow a deposition for Reid so that the MSNBC host could testify about, among other topics, personal bias and animus toward Donald Trump and his supporters.

La Liberte found herself the subject of unwanted attention after attending a city council meeting in Simi Valley, Calif., this past June. She wore a MAGA hat. And in a photo that would go viral, it appeared as though La Liberte was shouting at a 14-year-old boy. Later, commentators on Twitter would accuse La Liberte of calling the student a "dirty Mexican," telling him, "You are going to be the first deported."

This was false, claims La Liberte. She says her conversation with the boy was a civil one and that the photo was taken out of context. La Liberte has targeted Reid for inciting hatred toward her. She accuses Reid of perpetuating the untruthful impression that she screamed racial slurs at the boy.

La Liberte backed down on the provocative claim that a retweet by Reid constituted defamation, but the plaintiff is nevertheless continuing to pursue Reid for following up on the retweet to 1.24 million followers with further allegedly false statements. Reid's attorneys argue the lawsuit fails because La Liberte has not shown actual malice and that the statements at issue represented non-actionable opinion.

Here's where the case becomes legally provocative once again.

Reid is invoking California's anti-SLAPP statute, a law designed to curtail frivolous legal actions targeting First Amendment protected activity. Under the law, a judge looks at La Liberte's complaint, and if it arises from free speech activity on a matter of public interest, it falls upon La Liberte to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits of her claims. Otherwise, the lawsuit gets tossed.

Typically, in these situations, discovery gets paused except for a few odds and ends like jurisdictional questions. If discovery wasn't paused, the purpose of the SLAPP law would be defeated. It's a statute purposely designed to shield defendants in First Amendment cases from nuisance. 

But in this case, La Liberte is being represented by attorneys at  L. Lin Wood's firm, who are aggressively attacking the use of state SLAPP procedure in federal courts. Last month, for instance, Wood experienced success in a defamation lawsuit against CNN when the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Georgia's anti-SLAPP rules had no business in a federal court.

Now, G. Taylor Wilson, another lawyer in Wood's firm, is both attacking Reid's invocation of California's anti-SLAPP law as well as making the argument that since the MSNBC host's motion raises factual issues, the plaintiff should be permitted to move forward with discovery. (See here.) Essentially, La Liberte is looking to treat Reid's anti-SLAPP motion as a summary judgment motion.

A separate declaration from Wilson spells out the envisioned discovery. The attorney wants to probe Reid's knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. 

"Although actual malice is a standard that may be met through the presentation of circumstantial objective evidence, it requires an inquiry into facts relevant to the subjective state of mind of Reid," writes Wilson. "La Liberte seeks permission to propound no more than five targeted document requests, followed by a one-day deposition of Reid solely on the issue of actual malice."

And so what does the plaintiff wish to learn about Reid?

Among other things, Reid's alleged personal animus and bias.

Wilson tells the judge, "La Liberte seeks and reasonably expects to discover information regarding Reid's prior accusations against President Trump and his supporters (via social media or otherwise) and her honestly held beliefs about Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats in public, including any predisposition regarding whether such individuals are representative of racist conduct exhibited during the civil rights movement."