Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia filed a lawsuit Thursday in Massachusetts’ Suffolk Superior Court claiming journalist Aidan Kearney has libeled and defamed her during her tenure on the city council.
Mejia alleges Kearney, who goes by the nom de guerre Turtleboy, published on Feb. 15, 2021, statements to his blog, TBDailyNews.com, that were malicious and defamatory. The lawsuit also claims statements and questions Kearney published on social media more recently were libelous.
Mejia has been an at-large city councilor in Boston since 2019, and Kearney has reported on her frequently.
The suit claims Kearney’s reporting on Mejia “held [Mejia] up to public scorn and ridicule and destroyed or severely injured her good name and reputation, and future employment and election opportunities.”
She also claims she has suffered emotional distress and experienced mental anguish and anxiety because of reporting on her.
“[Kearney’s] conduct was extreme, outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society,” the lawsuit claims.
The first news story cited in the complaint involves a 2021 TBDailyNews.com story accusing Mejia of clout-chasing after a man in her neighborhood was shot to death.
Kearney reported that Mejia published live video to social media after hearing gunshots outside her Mattapan home and subsequently aired live footage of a dead man’s body.
According to the narrative Kearney relates, Mejia sought fame and attention in the middle of another person’s crisis rather than calling the police or seeking to help.
Although Mejia is now alleging the report was false and defamatory, following the events of that night she published a video to her own Twitter account apologizing for her conduct. Family members of the man also posted to Mejia’s social media criticizing the livestream.
The second item in the complaint stems from social media posts and stories Kearney published in 2022, including a post that alleges Mejia was pulled over for Driving Under the Influence (DUI), and that the incident was covered up by a “rogue Boston cop.”
According to Kearney, TB Daily News was inundated with tips regarding an alleged drunk driving incident involving Mejia. He also says he has communicated with other reporters who have received similar tips and are also investigating the allegations.
Kearney contacted Mejia on Twitter via direct message to ask her privately about the allegations, but after he sent her his questions she restricted access to her Twitter account without responding.
Kearney also posted questions for Mejia publicly on social media, and those questions are listed in Mejia’s complaint. Those questions include “any comment on the DUI/smoking crack allegations?” and “Are you really struggling if you’re so powerful that cops help you cover up your DUI?”
Another social media post includes a coy joke that Mejia’s behavior in a video stream was unusual in a manner that suggested drug use: “This is peak cringe. But she’s totally not on something. Stop asking questions!”
Kearney also said the following tweet, in which he filmed himself attempting to ask Mejia questions in person, is part of the lawsuit.
Mejia is seeking a jury trial and asking for a financial award to ameliorate her emotional suffering.
Mejia did not respond to Maine Wire inquiries submitted via Twitter.
Her attorney in the case is Anthony R. Ellison, brother of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
In order to succeed with her complaint against Kearney, Mejia will have to show that the Kearney knew, or should have known, that his assertions in his story and on social media were false at the time he posted them, and that he posted them with a malicious intent.
It’s a high bar, and one not typically met by public figures who sue critics, including journalists, for defamation.
The legal standard for defaming a public official was established in the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. The decision holds that a plaintiff in a defamation case must prove not only that a given statement is false, but they must also show that the statement was made with “actual malice.” In practice, politicians have had extraordinary difficulty convincing judges and juries of both.
For example, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sued the New York Times for defamation after the paper published an editorial laying blame for a mass shooting at her feet. That suit was dismissed because the jury conclude the times had not written the editorial with the requisite level of ill intent.
Then there was the 2022 defamation suit filed by former Democratic congressman from Florida Alan Grayson against a political action committee that had attacked him with mailers. Grayson’s suit was tossed because he failed to show the statements against him were false, let alone that the defendants knew they were false.
On the other hand, controversial Alabama politician Roy Moore last year won an $8.2 million judgment against a political action committee for a defamatory TV ad. Moore lost a separate suit against comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, but a jury found the television ad, which suggested Moore was banned from a shopping mall for soliciting sex from 14-year-olds, crossed the line.
On the whole, the track of politicians using defamation and libel law to silence critics or squelch potential news stories isn’t great.
The lawsuit aimed at muzzling Kearney has triggered what Internet users refer to as the “Streisand Effect,” where a famous person’s efforts to silence someone or remove content from the Web backfires, leading to even more attention.
In this case, the lawsuit has led the Boston Globe to investigate the allegation that Mejia was pulled over for DUI by filing a public records request with the city.
Regardless of the truth of Kearney’s reporting on Mejia and the high standard of Sullivan, he may face an uphill battle trying to get fair treatment from the Massachusetts’ legal system, especially a local jury.
Massachusetts is a state with a deep legacy of public corruption, and Kearney has made himself few friends in state government through his aggressive investigative reporting and willingness to discard journalistic shibboleths in pursuit of a story. He has often provoked the ire of Massachusetts’ predominantly Democratic politicians, and the left-wing media, with his brash, confrontational reporting style and often lewd headline writing.
But despite the criticisms leveled against Turtleboy and the sometimes chaotic news site he founded, his track record for breaking major stories is indisputable.
Consider the case of Monica Cannon-Grant, a left-wing activist who was celebrated by the mainstream media in Boston. Cannon-Grant became a celebrity race activist in the city thanks in large part to uncritical treatment in the press.But after Kearney drew attention to a racist diatribe Cannon-Grant had posted to social media — something Boston’s TV stations would never do — he began investigating other aspects of her activism, including her ties to City Hall and her receipt of large government grants.
Kearney’s investigation ultimately led Cannon-Grant and her husband to face scrutiny from law enforcement, resulting federal fraud and conspiracy charges. They pleaded not guilty last March to charges that they defrauded the non-profit activist group they ran and committed unemployment fraud.
Without Kearney’s reporting, Cannon-Grant would likely still be interviewing on Boston Public Radio, sitting for interviews with the Boston Globe, posing for pictures with politicians, and receiving massive taxpayer-funded grants from City Hall.
According to Kearney, Mejia was among the most prominent politicians in Boston backing Cannon-Grant.
Kearney has also taken on corruption and nepotism in the Massachusetts State Police (MSP).
In a series of 2018 investigative reports, he showed how political favoritism allowed the former girlfriend of a convicted drug dealer to become a Mass. State Trooper in the K-9 unit.
That reporting implicated Mass. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and several high-ranking members of the MSP, raising the question of whether well-connected cops and pols pulled strings to get an unqualified rookie a plush job. That reporting led several MSP brass into early retirement.
Before that, Kearney had broken a story about MSP leadership pressuring troopers to cover-up a scandal involving the daughter of Dudley District Court Judge Timothy Bibaud. The judge’s daughter, Alli Bibaud, was accused, among other things, of possession of heroin, and Kearney exposed how top officials conspired to sweep the case under the rug.
Like many Turtleboy stories, Massachusetts media reported on the Bibaud case long after Kearney had broken it, and they studiously avoided mentioning his name.
When corporate media outlets in Massachusetts aren’t ignoring Turtleboy stories, those same news outlets are copying his reporting to pass it off as their own work, often without attribution, a problem upstart web-based news operations often face. The legacy media in Massachusetts is always loath to credit Kearney for his work.
Adding to Kearney’s difficulties as he navigates the legal fight will be left-wing media organizations, the most prominent being the left-wing Boston Globe, which appear to rooting for Mejia.
The Boston Globe, which is owned by liberal billionaire John Henry, reported uncritically on a video Mejia published in which the councilor implied — without naming Kearney and without offering any evidence — that Kearney is a white supremacist.
Globe employee Shirley Leung, who regularly uses her position at the paper to go on activist crusades against people and businesses who don’t toe the progressive orthodoxy, retweeted Mejia’s claim, endorsing it.
The Boston Herald, long regarded as the conservative paper of record in Boston, has yet to write at all about the lawsuit, despite a long history of benefiting from Kearney’s journalism. The broader New England media have likewise paid little attention to the case.
The lawsuit will test how broadly First Amendment rights to free speech and the free press apply to journalists, especially independent journalists who are often looked down on by corporate media and establishment politicians.
Can a journalist, based on an anonymous tip, publicly question an elected official about allegations of illegal behavior and public corruption?
A decision against Kearney would certainly have a chilling effect on journalists, especially independent journalists who often lack the resources to engage in protracted litigation with well-connected, powerful politicians like Mejia.
In a statement to the Maine Wire, Kearney criticized Mejia’s lawsuit.
“Julia Mejia seems to think that being a city councilor makes her immune from criticism in the press,” he said. “Her lawsuit is a direct result of my inquiries into reports of a drunken driving incident that was reportedly covered up by an officer.”
“It is an attack not only on my first amendment rights, but on all journalists who will think twice about criticizing her in the future,” Kearney said.
“It represents an existential threat to our democracy, and elected leaders who value a robust press should condemn her actions,” he said.
Here are links to the Turtleboy stories Mejia is suing over:
Boston City Councillor Who Live Streamed Shooting Victim’s Corpse Instead Of Calling Police Has Attempted To Defund The Police, Is Close Friends With Monica Cannon-Grant
Boston City Councillor Julia Mejia Makes Twitter Account Private After Being Asked About Allegations Of Drunk Driving And Drug Use
Here’s Mejia’s complaint: