From Pizzagate to the 2020 Election: Forcing Liars to Pay or Apologize

Michael J. Gottlieb can never remember the exact amount — it’s $148,169,000— that a jury ordered Rudolph W. Giuliani to pay the Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. But Ms. Freeman’s words after the December 2023 victory are indelible to him.

“Don’t waste your time being angry at those who did this to me and my daughter,” said Ms. Freeman, 65, who with her daughter Ms. Moss, 39, was falsely accused by Mr. Giuliani of aiding an imagined plot to steal the 2020 presidential election.

“We are more than conquerors.”

Less than a decade ago, the two women would have struggled to find a lawyer. But Mr. Gottlieb, a partner at the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a former associate counsel in the Obama White House, represented them for free. Convinced that viral lies threaten public discourse and democracy, he is at the forefront of a small but growing cadre of lawyers deploying defamation, one of the oldest areas of the law, as a weapon against a tide of political disinformation.

Mr. Gottlieb has also represented the owner of the Washington pizzeria targeted by “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorists as well as the brother of Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee staff member whose 2016 murder ignited bogus theories implicating his family. In the Giuliani case, Mr. Gottlieb, his law partner Meryl Governski and other members of his team worked with Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that pushes for laws and policies to counter what it sees as authoritarian threats.

Before the Trump era and the explosion of social media, though, such cases were virtually nonexistent.

“The new information landscape we’re in is a little bit like the Wild West — a lawless space,” said Ian Bassin, a co-founder of Protect Democracy. Lawyers, he said, have turned to defamation, which is legally defined as any false information, either published, broadcast or spoken, that harms the reputation of a person, business or organization. “It’s one of the most effective and only strategies for dealing with these out-and-out falsehoods,” Mr. Bassin said.

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