In a recent episode of his wildly popular HBO series, “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver shockingly revealed to legions of viewers that he and his show had been the subject of a lawsuit behind closed doors, which dragged out over the past two years. The suit was filed by then-CEO of Murray Energy, the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, Bob Murray, or, as Oliver describes him, “geriatric Dr. Evil.” Murray was responding to a 2017 segment in which Oliver detailed, among other things, Murray’s close ties to the current President of the United States, his staunch objection to laws protecting miner’s safety, and the company’s possible culpability in a deadly mine collapse.
Apparently, Bob Murray was deeply troubled by this story, alleging in his suit that, “nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack.” Even if we take this line as genuine, which would require an extraordinary tolerance for rubbish, Oliver posits that this is an interesting balance of emotional priorities for a man who “oversaw a company whose mine collapse in Utah resulted in the deaths of nine people.” But clearly a comedian mocking him on late night television him for 20 minutes proved truly devastating.
The specifics of the lawsuit, however, are not the only focus of Oliver’s segment. In his typical fashion, the host broadened the scope of his story to a wide critique of so-called SLAPP suits, or “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” Essentially, suits like Murray’s are intended to scare dissenters into silence. Even though they have no legitimate backing and are largely dismissed in court (as this one was) they can still serve their intended purpose — to shut up the critics. The existence of SLAPP suits should be no surprise. Many public figures, including the President himself, have spoken freely about their intent to sue critics into the shadows. President Trump has actually advocated for making laws more lenient when it comes to this kind of legal action. However, this is a much more complicated issue than many are aware.
The formula for Oliver’s show actually hinges on this complexity. He takes something many are peripherally aware of which few understand, and delivers it to his viewers in an incredibly informative package wrapped in witty comedy and satirical graphics. Some of what makes “Last Week Tonight” so illuminating is the level of nuance Oliver provides in a comparatively short time frame.
One of the intricacies of this case that Oliver takes care to highlight is the impact of SLAPP suits on publications fundamentally unlike his own. For many small publications, these suits can be devastating, as the legal baselessness of the claims does not negate the fact that they are costly, time consuming, and often simply too much of a strain on resources for businesses to bear. Not to mention that a suit like this is “a difficult, painful experience” which “plaintiffs can find ways to extend… through intensive discovery requests, depositions and appeals.” Oliver’s own legal dilemma totaled more than $200,000. While he was fortunate to have insurance and the backing of a large company like HBO, few are so lucky.
While 30 states have laws intended to curtail this damaging, circuitous process, the other 20 do not. This allows plaintiffs to circumvent these protections by simply suing in a different state, as Murray did. Oliver delivered the pithy and chilling line, “Lawsuits are like famous Instagram pugs — they don’t have to work to be considered very, very successful. By cultivating a reputation for being aggressively litigious, Murray may have… successfully applied a chokehold to how he is covered.” This leads to Oliver’s final point. As in many of his episodes, he concludes with a sort of call to action, provides a road map for a sort of “what should happen next.” He regales viewers with fascinating, hilarious, yet deeply troubling facts for the first 20 minutes, but then explains exactly what needs to happen to remedy the situation. This time, it is exactly what one would expect: “We badly need effective anti-SLAPP laws nationwide to deter powerful people like Bob Murray from using the courts to shut down people’s legitimate dissent.”
What is unexpected is the grand finale, an incredible five-minute dance sequence set among the bright lights of Time Square and littered with jokes at Murray’s expense. It is spectacular and cathartic. Words do not do it justice.