Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder didn’t always think a defamation lawsuit was the appropriate way to respond to criticism in the press.
About 10 years ago, in fact, Snyder was a defendant in a defamation case in federal court in Virginia—which the Redskins owner successfully argued should be thrown out, because the criticism at issue was a matter of opinion.
Shortly after Snyder bought the team in 1999, the Redskins fired longtime groundskeeper John Jenkins Sr.and his son, John “Chip” Jenkins Jr. from their jobs maintaining the practice fields at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va. They were replaced by the crew in charge of the playing surface at FedExField. That November, Sports Illustrated ran a story by Peter King, detailing the ways Snyder had been shaking up the organization—from the players in the locker room to the way the air conditioning was run.
“At Redskins Park, the fields were in bad shape,” Snyder told SI. “There were three guys trying to kill the players with their crappy fields, so I brought in the head of the grounds crew at the stadium to oversee the fieldwork. Shame on me for trying to make the fields perfect.”
The groundskeepers, who said Snyder’s comments would hurt their ability to find work in the future, sued him for defamation in late 2000, seeking a retraction and compensation for damages.
In motions and memos Snyder’s legal team filed in response, which Washington City Paper obtained from court archives, the Redskins owner proved himself to be a passionate defender of free speech and a robust press.
“Snyder’s comments were made for circulation to a general public audience in the nation’s leading sportsweekly,” a brief supporting Snyder’s motion to dismiss the case reads. “The whole panoply of First Amendment protections clearly apply…. Plaintiffs frame this case as the hard-working loyal groundskeepers against the mean new owner worthy of his moniker ‘Boy Plunder’ in the Sports Illustrated article. But anger over their termination or the fortunes of their beloved team is no substitute for the requisite elements of a libel claim. Those elements prevent riding roughshod over the free speech rights of, yes, even football team owners to speak their minds.”
Thanks to the First Amendment, Snyder’s legal team argued a decade ago, you can’t win a court case against someone for telling the truth. “The Constitution provides a sanctuary for truth,” Snyder’s lawyers wrote, quoting a court ruling. Snyder’s side also said it’s entirely fair to use hyperbole or exaggerated language to criticize someone. “While certainly unpleasant to have such views… aired in a national publication, such criticism hardly impugns their integrity or goes beyond those negative performance evaluations which courts have routinely concluded do not constitute defamation, as a matter of law,” reads a memo supporting the motion to dismiss.
Snyder’s team told the court no one could possibly have thought he literally meant the Jenkins were trying to kill the players. “The obvious exaggeration that the groundskeepers are ‘trying to kill the players with their crappy fields,’ even plaintiffs must concede, can not be understood in its literal, factual sense of an accusation of attempted murder,” Snyder’s lawyers wrote. Underscoring that point, they also wrote: “A reasonable reader could not understand defendant’s remarks to accuse plaintiffs of any wrongdoing which would rise to the level of a defamatory harm to reputation.”
Lawyers for Snyder also argued that the Jenkins—who wanted him to retract his comments—couldn’t be allowed to win. “Injunctions requiring publication of a retraction are unconstitutional as well as impermissible since there is an adequate remedy at law,” they wrote in a footnote.
U.S. District JudgeJames C. Cacheris agreed with Syder’s arguments, dismissing the suit in February 2001, as Snyder requested. The Jenkinses filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, in March 2001, but dropped the case that July.
Last week, of course, Snyder sued the investment partnership that owns City Paper’s parent company, alleging that our November cover story defamed him.
Reached at his home, John Jenkins tells City Paper he doesn’t want to talk about anything having to do with Snyder. Chip Jenkins, in a message, says the same thing.