On Valentine’s Day, someone obtained a number of internal documents from the Heartland Institute including IRS records from 2010, the agenda and meeting minutes from the January 17 board meeting, and proposed 2012 fundraising plan, among others. On the 15th, Heartland claimed that these documents had been stolen and that one was a fabrication, and they announced plans to “pursue charges and collect payment for damages, including damages to our reputation.” Earlier today, Greg Laden posted the threatening email he received on his blog, and Heartland’s demands are as follows:
[W]e respectfully demand: (1) that you remove both the Fake Memo and the Alleged Heartland Documents from your web site; (2) that you remove from your web site all posts that refer or relate in any manner to the Fake Memo and the Alleged Heartland Documents; (3) that you remove from your web site any and all quotations from the Fake Memo and the Alleged Heartland Documents; (4) that you publish retractions on your web site of prior postings; and (5) that you remove all such documents from your server.
Brendan DeMelle of DeSmogBlog.com was sent a similar email which is posted online as well.
While both emails were signed by “Maureen Martin, General Counsel,” they came from the email of Heartland’s Communications Director, Jim Lakely. Not only that, but Martin is a Senior Fellow for legal affairs, and is not listed in the Heartland staff directory as “General Counsel,” or indeed as staff of any kind. However, this apparent oversight may be intentional, as Heartland lists no legal staff of any kind (although many Heartland fellows and staff are lawyers by training).
In addition, the Lakely/Martin letter references several times that the Heartland documents have not been authenticated. The letter was emailed on February 18, four days after the documents were published on Feb. 14. That the documents were not authenticated the day after they were published is reasonable, as Lakely’s response on the 15th indicated that Heartland president Joe Bast was traveling when the documents were published. However, five days have now passed since the documents were first published on the web. In that time Bast has had the opportunity to personally threaten a 71 year-old veteran and local newspaper editor with legal action, write a letter to Heartland’s supporters requesting donations for a legal defense fund, and write a misinformation-filled attempt at a point-by-point refutation of a New York Times article.
Given this level of activity from the man who is responsible for authenticating the documents, it is no longer credible that Bast and the Heartland Institute have not had sufficient time to verify the documents. In addition, multiple sources have verified specific information contained within the documents, so it is likely that the documents are authentic. The question now becomes why the Heartland Institute has not chosen to do so.
It’s too early to say whether or not the Heartland Institute will make good on its threats, or whether it is attempting to intimidate bloggers and news outlets into retracting statements based on facts that have been independently corroborated. Lawsuits similar to those being threatened by the Heartland Institute have the potential to chill public participation in highly charged topics (and thus been labeled “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs), and many are thrown out by judges on First Amendment grounds.
After all, it’s not defamation if the facts being reported are true. Given the number of facts that have been independently corroborated by bloggers and journalists alike, it is likely that the bulk of the information contained within the documents is accurate.