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Trustee Hawkins Receives Legal Threats

April 11, 2014

Ailes lawyer demands retraction and written apology for Facebook post

By Kevin E. Foley

The Putnam County News and Recorder and its publisher, Elizabeth Ailes, have threatened to sue Cold Spring Village Trustee Stephanie Hawkins for libel because she refuses to remove a post on her Facebook page. Hawkins did not write the post but instead “shared” a comment by then-Trustee Matt Francisco, who accused someone of “following” him during the recent campaign.

In the first of a series of letters a lawyer for the Aileses stated: “These statements and comments also constitute tortious interference in the business and contractual relations of our clients. As such they are actionable and expose you to the imposition of compensatory as well as punitive damages.”

In the Facebook post that prompted the dispute, Francisco wrote: “The Ailes newspaper and their candidates have gone too far. It is clear I’m being followed; my movements are being tracked and reported in their newspaper.”

Elizabeth Ailes

Elizabeth Ailes

The New York City law firm representing the Aileses and the newspaper has also sent cease-and-desist letters to Francisco, demanding he remove the original post, and to Cold Spring residents Dar Williams and Michael Robinson, who sent out a letter to friends [page 1 / page 2] who have weekend homes in Cold Spring, asking them to vote absentee for Francisco and his running mate, Donald MacDonald, and citing what they feel is the negative influence of the PCNR and Elizabeth Ailes and her husband, Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, on local issues.

Francisco, who with MacDonald lost a close race to Cathryn Fadde and Michael Bowman, told The Paper his attorney had advised him to ignore the letter. Francisco did, however, remove the post from his campaign Facebook page.

“It has become alarmingly clear to me how threats of litigation from very powerful people can inhibit public participation here in our small village,” Francisco said April 10. “Maybe our newly elected Trustees Cathryn Fadde and Michael Bowman can be of help here. Due to the nature of the original story maybe they could intercede here to help clear all of this up with the PCNR? It certainly would go a long way towards healing the divides that they speak of with great frequency.”

The law firm representing the Aileses, Leahey & Johnson, has sent three letters to Hawkins since March 14 threatening legal action over multiple charges, including libeling and defaming Elizabeth Ailes, Roger Ailes and the PCNR staff. Ailes’ lawyer also demanded a retraction and written apology from Hawkins.

At the same time, the PCNR‘s editor, Doug Cunningham, published articles, a column and a quasi-editorial accusing Hawkins of damaging actions against the PCNR organization and of attempting to suppress the PCNR’s freedom of speech and its reporting.

The Facebook posting by Francisco followed a PCNR article on March 12 by reporter Tim Greco in which he reported on the letter written by Williams and Robinson, which the newspaper characterized as a “smear campaign” against Bowman and Fadde. Francisco and MacDonald said they had no knowledge of the email, which disparaged the Aileses.

Greco wrote: “Despite the denial, the Francisco and MacDonald team is clearly in touch with Robinson and Williams. Francisco was outside their home Monday morning. And the PCNR has confirmed that MacDonald has attended meetings with Stephanie Hawkins, a current trustee, at Williams’ and Robinson’s home.” Greco did not say how he or the newspaper obtained the information. He also had reported on Dec. 18 that “Francisco was recently seen in a restaurant on Main Street having a lengthy conversation with James Geppner,” a persistent critic of the Butterfield development.

The day the March 12 story appeared, Francisco complained on Facebook that his movements were “being tracked and reported” in the PCNR, without specifying who might be doing the tracking. Hawkins, a supporter of Francisco and MacDonald, then “shared” Francisco’s post on her own Facebook page.

Stephanie Hawkins

Stephanie Hawkins

The first letter sent to Hawkins by Leahey & Johnson denies that Elizabeth Ailes or anyone at the PCNR was involved in following or tracking Francisco, MacDonald or Hawkins. It further states that the newspaper had no obligation to reveal its sources. The letter demands a retraction of the “malicious, false and libelous statements” along with “an apology for the outrageous and patently false statements made against our clients.”

The second letter arrived on March 18, the morning of the village election, and a third on March 26. The latter was sent to her home, the Cold Spring Village Board office and Simon & Schuster in Manhattan, where she works. The letters were identical except for the most recent, which also demanded an apology including “acknowledging the impropriety of attempting to interfere with the PCNR’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

In a response on March 28, two Manhattan attorneys representing Hawkins, Steven J. Hyman of McLaughlin & Stern and Norman Siegel of Siegel, Teitelbaum & Evans, called the PCNR’s allegations of libel “baseless as a matter of fact and law,” stating that Hawkins “has every right to comment on matters of public interest and concern,” and to “voice her opinion with regard to individuals and entities that are subjects of or otherwise part of the public debate” and that “sending repeated letters to Ms. Hawkins at various addresses containing the same threats and meritless claims” is a calculated effort to intimidate and “must cease.”

Hawkins, who says she is undecided about plans to run for re-election to the Village Board in March 2015, said April 7 that she does not expect the Aileses to sue her. Instead, she said, “They are seeking my censure. They will try to work people up through proxies on social media.”

Doug Cunningham

Doug Cunningham

In addition to the legal threats, PCNR editor Cunningham appeared on March 25 before the Village Board to read a statement in which he said the publication was “appalled by these outrageous allegations … I believe these attacks are an effort to chill, regulate and tamp down our reporting. For the record, we will not be dissuaded. A free press is vital to democracy.”

Cunningham’s remarks were posted on the PCNR website and appeared in the April 2 edition of that newspaper. The March 26 edition of the publication included a news report attributed to the “staff” and headlined “Hawkins Continues Divisive Actions” that reported she had “failed to remove the libelous material.” The article said “Hawkins appears resolute to force a legal confrontation for herself and possibly the village.” The article did not state how the village government could be tied to or be responsible for a Facebook post.

File photos by K.E. Foley

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16 Responses to Trustee Hawkins Receives Legal Threats

  1. Chris Daly

    April 11, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Maybe the PCNR thinks if it keeps pointing its disingenuously “appalled” fingers at phantom “attacks,” it will effectively distract people from the genuinely appalling attacks its prints weekly in its “newspaper” and advocates via proxy on Facebook.

    BREAKING NEWS (free access): It won’t.

  2. Stephen Rose

    April 11, 2014 at 10:25 am

    This ongoing PCNR policy of targeting and attacking individuals and trying to leverage appearances into conspiracies is not constructive journalism. Accusing others of chilling their free speech is jaw-dropping when selfless individuals are intimidated from engaging in public service by their attacks.

  3. Steve Laifer

    April 11, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Suppression of free speech is anti-American in the extreme, whether by a government, a corporation, or powerful and wealthy individuals. Our collective voices form the basis of our democracy, and those who seek to silence others are subverting that democracy. Instilling fear & intimidation through personal bullying, frivolous lawsuits or riling people up through the PCNR’s demonstrably false stories and editorials are a grave offense to a civilized society. It is difficult to understand what perverse satisfaction is to be gained from these actions, but their insistence on silencing some in our community while fanning the flames of division have torn our community apart.

  4. Roger Rahtz

    April 11, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    For those appalled, as I am, by these tactics — which are designed to intimidate and to squelch free expression of opinion — I’d suggest that we all “like” the aforementioned Facebook page. The Ailes claque can then sue us all!

  5. Ann Beddingfield

    April 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    I was puzzled by several aspects of this story.

    Hawkins is being threatened with litigation based on a LIKE she entered with respect to a Francisco Facebook post? (You mean that little thumbs up button you hit after reading a Facebook post?)

    When Hawkins hit this button, she somehow libeled the Ailes? (Not likely: see 47 United States Code 47(c)(1).)

    When Hawkins hit this button, she somehow interfered “improperly” with the contractual or business relations of the Ailes or the PCNR? (Tortious interference with contractual relations arises when C improperly interferes with B’s performance of, or his ability to perform, his contractual obligations to A. So if Hawkins is C and the Ailes/PCNR are A, who is B?)

    Then it dawned on me that Francisco’s statements in the sixth paragraph go right to the heart of the matter: the effect of threats like those made to him and Hawkins is to chill public participation. But not only is that the effect: it is also the deliberate purpose. The threats are a classic example of how a SLAPP lawsuit is commenced. (SLAPP = Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.)

    Wikipedia gives a succinct introductory statement on SLAPPs:

    “A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition…. The typical SLAPP plaintiff does not normally expect to win the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate.”

    I apologize for citing Wikipedia but it offers a good quick summary.

    • Stephanie Hawkins

      April 11, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      I offer a correction: I “shared” the Facebook post on my Facebook page. Notwithstanding the difference between “like” and “share” on Facebook, Ann Beddingfield, you are right on point!

      Thank you, Dot-info, for your coverage of this matter. It’s important for us all that we have access to your alternative local reporting. Kudos on your many awards, BTW!

      • Site Editor

        April 12, 2014 at 10:13 am

        This has been corrected.

  6. Lillian Rosengarten

    April 11, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    I personally think editor Doug Cunningham’s column in the PCNR is the worst form of attack “journalism” (if one can call it that). It is distorted, childish and clearly an attempt to further inflame our community and to divide. Having aspects of Fox News disturbing our peace is unpleasant to say the least.

    Please, let no one be intimidated even though the plutocrats seem to want to run the show.

    It’s time to let go of this vindictive behavior and practice compassion, true listening and neighborly love.

  7. John Plummer

    April 11, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Who can blame Stephanie for being undecided about running for re-election? I, however, hope she will run again, because she has been an unqualified boon for the Village of Cold Spring.

    Meanwhile, the Ailes playbook on this isn’t new; watch how Fox News has operated since its inception, fabricating scandals, pretending to be the victim when in fact its the bully, distracting people from real issues, writing editorial opinion but calling it journalism. This is all standard operating procedure for political chicanery, and the examples in history go back well before the birth of Roger Ailes.

    To quote the final line from Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s brilliant children’s book, Brundibar, based on the opera: “Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs, the next appears, and we shall meet again, my dears!”

    Thus far the Ailes paper has refrained from attacking the Cold Spring Film Society, which I cofounded with Stephanie and several other community-minded volunteers. Stephanie has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours a year to create an annual summer event that delights thousands upon thousands of people for free. Without Stephanie Hawkins, there would be no Cold Spring Film Society. Period.

  8. Eric Erickson

    April 12, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Just shared this on my Facebook page….

  9. Cheryl Allen

    April 12, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    “To err is human.” When an error is made in an online or newspaper article, isn’t it proper to make a notation at the bottom of the article with the correction, rather than change the writing in the article? There is a big difference between “Like” and “Shared.” I see that a notation was made in the Comment section, but what happens if the “comments” become unavailable? Is this a standard practice to change wording in articles? I feel that making corrections at the bottom of the article would show more integrity in reporting.

  10. Dar Williams

    April 12, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    Thank you for writing this important article.

  11. Judith Rose

    April 13, 2014 at 8:26 am

    I do not care how much money the PCNR offers our Village in the form of parades, events, fireworks. I would prefer to identify other avenues of fundraising over being beholden to those who bully. Right now it’s Stephanie and some may say, “Oh, it’s just her.” But what happens when they go after Ralph and Mike and Marie and all the others who serve us so well? Will the Village Board step up to the plate then? Doug Cunningham can come and speak to the Board all he wants, but can someone legally say, “Stop your bullying,” afterward?

  12. Charles E. Hustis III

    April 14, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Why can’t we all just get along? Life’s too short for all this nonsense.

  13. David Limburg

    April 17, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Maybe not threatening people with lawsuits because you don’t like what someone quotes in a public forum would be a way to “get along…”

  14. Steve Petkus

    April 19, 2014 at 3:41 am

    My family moved to this community six years ago; in part, our move had to do with friends and family who’d established their lives in Philipstown from the early 2000s onward. Coincidentally, our first year as Cold Spring residents also saw the big change in the local paper, the PCNR. In short order, we stopped purchasing our copy on Wednesdays. The advent of The Paper and its online complement in philipstown.info was so very, very welcome — a bright light in unnecessarily dark times. So I wish to register a cringe here, when I see even an apparent friend of The Paper (Stephanie Hawkins) characterizing it in a comment as an “alternative” news source. No. This paper is the main local news source in town. Period, end of story. The other one has discredited itself enough, in my view, both through its known backing and its weekly content, to the point where it should consider itself terribly lucky if anyone sees it as a source of “news” at all.