In a case that could have far-reaching implications, two Hoboken activists are suing two Hoboken-based bloggers and 10 unnamed internet commenters for allegedly making “false and defamatory” posts about them.
Hoboken resident Lane Bajardi and wife Kimberly Cardinal Bajardi filed the lawsuit on July 26 in Hudson County Superior Court seeking $2 million in damages, naming Hoboken-based bloggers Roman Brice and Nancy Pincus as well as 10 unnamed defendants – listed in the court documents by their on-line screen names – for allegedly posting remarks that allegedly interfered with the careers and future employment of the Bajardi family.
Lane Bajardi is employed by WINS 1010 and has been a radio reporter for many years.
Brice and Pincus’ blogs frequently focus on Hoboken politics and government, favoring the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer and taking aim at Zimmer’s critics, including Bajardi. Brice’s blog is known as the “Hoboken Horse” blog, while Pincus’ blog is called “Grafix Avenger.”
The lawsuit includes a letter that Pincus allegedly e-mailed to Bajardi’s employer in January of 2012, saying that he spreads “bigotry and intolerance” in Hoboken as a political operative.
The lawsuit also includes copies of posts that were made on the internet by the “Grafix Avenger” referencing the Bajardis’ child, who is a toddler.
The lawsuit has the potential to become a national issue.
Pincus, besides blogging, is a member of the Hoboken Zoning Board, allied with City Hall.
Bajardi has no positions on city boards but has been a supporter of one of Zimmer’s most outspoken political opponents, Councilwoman Beth Mason. He also came to a Board of Education meeting in 2010 to publicly complain about the graphics on Pincus’ blog, including one of school board candidates in a punch bowl with floating turds.
Free speech issues
Scores of stories and comments against the Bajardis have been posted on the blogs and in the comments sections of internet news sites for more than a year, some referring to their personal appearance and personal lives, others including photos of Lane Bajardi, and in one case, a photo appeared on Pincus’ blog of the couple’s residence in downtown Hoboken.
The defamation suit cites numerous instances in which the comments and blog posts alleged that Lane Bajardi has engaged in various criminal behaviors. In the suit, Bajardi said the claims are all untrue.
Last week, the bloggers charged on their blogs and in comments to the media that the lawsuit is attempting to silence their free speech.
“This is a malicious use of the courts to suppress the political speech of the two most prominent reform political bloggers and all political discourse from the reform side,” said Pincus in an e-mail to the Reporter.
Those allied with Zimmer and against past administrations consider themselves reformers. Zimmer replaced a mayor who was arrested for taking bribes in 2009.
Councilwoman Beth Mason has been allied with Zimmer’s three other opponents on the nine-member City Council. Mason said that the nature of the posts on line targeting the Bajardis is “bullying.”
“This was cyberbullying,” Mason said, detailing the high number of posts on the websites against the Bajardis. “This is repeated behavior that went on for years and became more and more intense.”
Last week, Mayor Zimmer was asked if she had any comment about the suit, and about the fact that one of the named bloggers is on the Zoning Board. Pincus was appointed by the City Council majority that is allied with Zimmer.
Zimmer said, “I don’t really know about the litigation so I don’t have any comment. I couldn’t possibly comment on something that I haven’t seen. Plus, it doesn’t involve me so I don't think it’s really appropriate for me to comment on it.”
The claims in the suit
The lawsuit cites numerous posts on Pincus’ blog as well as on the internet.
According to the lawsuit, this past January, Pincus wrote an e-mail to Bajardi’s current employer.
The suit alleges that Pincus wrote, “Lane Bajardi is a hyper-partisan politic operative who blogs under the screen name ‘Prosbus’ and is now fomenting anti-Semitism in his latest effort to smear Hoboken’s Jewish mayor, Dawn Zimmer…I don’t think your advertisers will appreciate a voice on your airways actively engaged in spreading bigotry and intolerance in the Hoboken Community.”
In fact, Bajardi is Jewish. In the lawsuit, Bajardi denied posting anything anti-Semitic or anything attacking other ethnic or religious groups. He also said that contrary to what the letter said, he was not “Prosbus,” the handle of someone who has often criticized Zimmer on a local news web site.
The suit says, “The email also harms Mr. Barjardi’s relationship with his employer. It encourages CBS to terminate Mr. Bajardi’s employment through its threat to harm 1010Wins radio’s listenership. Mr. Bajardi’s supervisor, who has the ability to terminate Mr. Bajardi was made aware of the email. When asked by CBS to prove that Mr. Bajardi posted under the pseudonym Prosbus, Ms. Pincus never responded.”
Many of the posts that referred to the Bajardis’ personal life were posted as part of exchanges after news stories that ran on a Hoboken news website. On that site, commenters defending the Zimmer administration often tussled with two anonymous commenters criticizing the administration. The commenters who support Mayor Zimmer appeared to believe that the two anonymous critics were Bajardi and his wife, and began repeatedly responding to them as “Kim” and “Lane,” making personal attacks and mentioning personal information.
Bajardi said in the suit that he does not post on the web site in question, Hoboken Patch.
In response to a question last week about the letter, Pincus said she had a legitimate concern about Bajardi as an on-air representative of CBS Corporation and his role as a journalist and political operative.
The accused internet bloggers argued that they simply engaged in public discourse, a kind of political theater which never intended to hurt anyone.
“In general, both Horsey [Brice] and GA [Grafix Avenger] have engaged in political theater in which much of this is tongue and cheek, meant to make people laugh and think about issues,” Pincus responded by e-mail.
Pincus responded to a number of questions submitted by the Reporter, but said she could not answer others because she was still mounting a defense that involved some of the information requested. Brice did not respond to any of the questions.
On Tuesday, Brice’s blog carried an appeal for donations for the “Hoboken Free Speech Legal Defense Fund” intended to finance legal costs for all 12 defendants, according to his blog.
In their suit, the Bajardis said their livelihood depends heavily on their credibility and reputation in the community, and the suit contends that Pincus, under the pseudonym Grafix Avenger, and Brice, under the name HobokenHorse, and others posted disparaging remarks on Hoboken Patch, Galloway Patch, NJ.com (the Jersey Journal and Star Ledger’s website), as well as their own sites.
Although Pincus, Brice, and others have posted for several years, the suit quotes postings made from early June 2011 to mid July 2012 and claims that during that period, the 12 defendants caused the Bajardis injury to their reputation and their dealings with employers. The suit also charges that the posts caused emotional distress.
Although internet postings accused the Bajardis of being paid by Mason as paid political operatives, Mason said last week that this was not true.
“I never paid them,” she said. “We’re friends. They are not consultants of any kind. I’ve known them for years. Lane is a journalist. We both have an interest in journalism. We believe in many of the same things.”
The lawsuit also included an online letter to the FBI from Pincus’ blog, in which Pincus said she would like to shoot someone – an act she said was satire. The letter made a reference to the location of the Bajardis’ residence.
Pincus was asked to step down from the Zoning Board last year by Councilman Tim Occhipinti after she made the post about wanting to shoot someone. The issue became public after Pincus was visited by police. At the time, Pincus said the letter was satire and called the accusation absurd.
“The press cherry-picks that quote out-of-context, but neglects mentioning in the same letter I wrote I'd ‘use the Vulcan Death grip’ or about sharing falafels at Mamoun’s with the FBI,” she said last week. “Or the fact it was one in a long satirical series. The fact that the press omits any context is proof of media bias against bloggers.”
Will the unnamed bloggers be revealed?
The majority of the City Council (which is pro-Zimmer) voted down the move to remove Pincus from the Zoning Board.
The suit said false and defamatory comments concerning the Bajardi couple were also posted under pseudonyms Bet Mazin, KlaussennFluffer, InfortainMe, SmartyJones, BluDiamonds, JAM, Redrider765, Plywood, Davidd, ss1959, Hobbs, and others. Several other unnamed bloggers were quoted in the suit including khoboken, ThisMeansWar, HobokenLeaks, redrider765, and Jam.
One post on Patch by ThisMeansWar says, “Now what about your child? Have either of you losers EVER thought about the damage you are doing to him? … But he will be the kid who is KNOWN the second he walks through the doors of ANY schools as the progeny of you two hateful people. Children are cruel…. Stop thinking about how badly you want to hurt everyone associated with Zimmerman [sic] and reform and start thinking about how BADLY you are hurting your own child.”
Pincus said many of the remarks quoted in the suit from this site were taken out of context and were part of an ongoing dialogue that grew heated.
Pincus said that she believed that she was making these exchanges with one or both of the Bajardis. Pincus said she believed it was them because of the writing style and because after people began calling them Lane and Kim on-line, the anonymous posters did not deny being them.
Pincus also was the focus of controversy in which she was accused of using Nazi images on her blog to depict political enemies – a charge she refuted, but she eventually offered an apology to a state Jewish group. She said that the post in question was satire. Pincus, like Bajardi, Mason, and Zimmer, is Jewish.
Pincus and other bloggers have routinely alluded to Lane Bajardi as either a target of a federal investigation or a cooperating witness. In the suit, Bajardi said neither allegation was true. Several postings implied Lane Bajardi was somehow involved in the theft of emails out of City Hall – a claim he also denied in the lawsuit. A city employee was arrested for that crime last year.
Pincus said the timing of the lawsuit was questionable.
“This is a SLAPP suit against two named prominent reform bloggers and 10 John Does , plus 12 additional anonymous and unspecified ‘others,’ contained within the complaint designed to frighten reform side of the internet community, disable our blogs, and drag the mayor into it – just in time for the Labor Day mayoral race announcements,” she said.
Zimmer is up for re-election in 2013.
“This is a political dirty trick, and nothing more,” Pincus said. “This SLAPP is not about satire. This SLAPP is about icing speech on the reform blogosphere and dragging the mayor – who is irrelevant – into it.”
Brice has posted a similar comment on his blog, calling the suit a SLAPP suit, which is a lawsuit designed to use litigation to silence critics (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation).
In 2010, Brice accused Lane Bajardi of allegedly assaulting him and taking his camera during a Board of Education candidates’ forum. Bajardi filed a counter complaint and the matter was eventually dropped.
Difference between fact and fiction
The lawsuit has the potential to become a national issue following similar suits in which courts such as in Washington State ruled against bloggers who make unsubstantiated claims. The Washington suit was based on one comment left on a site.
When asked what she would consider “going too far,” Pincus replied, “The First Amendment applies to all.”
Many of the comments quoted in the suit are still on the internet.
Bajardi declined last week to respond to questions for this story.
In the suit, he has asked for a jury trial.
According to legal sources, each of the defendants could be asked to pay $2 million in damages, so the total liability of the suit may be more than $20 million.
Both named bloggers have continued to post on their blogs. In a post on Aug. 10, Pincus referred to Bajardi as “Lane (redacted).”
As of this past weekend, when news of the suit hit the press, most of the commenters named in the suit have stopped appearing on Hoboken Patch, the news site where many of the comments about the Bajardis were left. Patch’s editor did not respond last week to a request for comment. It is unknown whether the screen names were banned.
Approximately a month ago, Patch began delaying comments on its site, holding them for several hours for review, as opposed to their past practice of allowing them to appear soon after they were submitted.
The posts between the Zimmer supporters and critics battling it out numbered in the hundreds. But after the lawsuit became public, the comments on individual stories on the site were down, in several cases, to single digits.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.