Yesterday the ACLU of Northern California issued Taylor Swift’s legal team at Venable LLP a snarky and very public lesson in the First Amendment.
On Sept. 5, following Swift’s Aug. 24 release of her new album’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” PopFront editor Meghan Herning published a post titled Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation. Herning makes the claim that the lyrics to Swift’s single are littered with dog whistles to quiet supporters of white supremacy. “The song ‘Look What you made [sic] Me Do’ evidently speaks to the lower case kkk; and they have embraced it,” she wrote.
According to its website, PopFront is “an online magazine about politics, culture and activism, proudly centered in the Left Coast.” It currently has less than 200 Twitter followers and just over 1.1 thousand page likes on Facebook.
Despite PopFront’s rather small reach and following, on Oct. 25, Swift’s legal team confronted Herning with a letter demanding a retraction for what they called a “false and defamatory story.” The letter elaborates by denying that the pop star supports white supremacy or the alt-right.
“The notion that Ms. Swift supports white supremacy is utterly fabricated and a reprehensible falsehood, and it attempts to portray Ms. Swift in a false light. Let this letter stand as a yet another unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the alt-right. Moreover, Ms. Swift has not remained silent regarding this issue, and she has made clear that she does not approve of any association with such repugnant groups or their beliefs. Contrary to the statements in this story, Ms. Swift has repeatedly and consistently denounced white supremacy when she has faced these disgusting accusations, including by denouncing these vile lies when other publications have repeated them.”
The letter concludes with an apparent attempt to keep it from going public.
“This is a confidential legal notice and is not for publication. Any publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of this letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of Copyright Act. You are not authorized to publish this letter in whole or in part absent our express written authorization.”
Rather than complying with Venable LLP’s demand for a retraction, Herning connected with the ACLU of Northern California. On Nov. 6, the ACLU of Northern California published Venable LLP’s letter online along with their response to it, which snarkily incorporates the singer’s song titles to educate Swift and her legal team on free speech and free press:
“Criticism is never pleasant, but a celebrity has to shake it off, even if the critique may damage her reputation.”
“Applying these fundamental constitutional principles to your four ‘hideous falsehoods’ shows that not even in your wildest dreams can they constitute defamation.”
The response concludes by rejecting Swift’s legal team’s attempt to keep their original letter from going public. “Finally, the ominous paragraph at the end of your letter…is utter nonsense,” it asserts. “In short, you may no more use copyright law to hide the contents of your letter from public scrutiny than a kidnapper could use it to prevent his victim’s family from giving a copy of the ransom note to the police.”
As can be the case when the ACLU gets involved, the matter gained attention from several national news outlets including NPR, USA Today and Bloomberg. What began as an opinion piece on a niche blog turned into a PR mess for Swift just days before the Nov. 10 release of her sixth album, ironically titled Reputation.
The lesson here is that national brands and public figures need to choose their battles, especially when dealing with online critics. Regardless of the final legal outcome, Swift’s attorneys, in a failed attempt to squash an old unflattering blog post, ultimately put a national spotlight on it.
Brian Hart is an award-winning communications consultant and founder of Flackable, a national public relations and digital marketing agency headquartered in Philadelphia. Follow Brian on Twitter at @BrianHartPR.