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Free Speech

Alleged Neo-Nazi Loses Libel Lawsuit


From Weaver v. Millsaps, decided Wednesday by the Georgia Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge C. Andrew Fuller, joined by Judges Anne Elizabeth Barnes and Benjamin Land:

After Michael Weaver and others acting at his behest posted negative Google reviews of Valerie Millsaps's frame shop business, she published a response, calling Weaver a Neo-Nazi and known felon who was targeting her business and had "threatened to kill other shop members."  …

Millsaps and her husband own a framing shop in Cartersville. One day in June 2022 while Millsaps was driving her company van, she saw Weaver standing on the street holding a sign that appeared to be antisemitic. Millsaps "displayed [her] middle finger" at Weaver. Weaver, having seen the business logo on the van, published a post on his personal blog asking his followers to leave negative Google reviews of the business. Within 12 hours, multiple negative reviews appeared on the business's Google review page. Weaver subsequently thanked his supporters who had left the reviews and stated, "I'm just getting warmed up! … Total f__king war!"

In response, Millsaps posted her own comment on her business's Google review page:

My business is being targeted by a Neo Nazi and a member of the KKK. Please disregard the reviews. None of those profiles have ever entered my shop. I am being harassed and bullied by Michael [Weaver]. A known felon of hate crimes. He has targeted many businesses in our town. I refuse to be intimidated by him and his hate literature that he has left at my shop and my home. He has threatened to kill other shop members and flooded their Google reviews with harassing, untrue reviews. You can decide to try my shop and let my experience speak. Please note all date stamps are in a concentrated period of time. I choose LOVE over HATE. Thank you kindly.

According to Millsaps, the frame shop's Google rating plummeted due to negative reviews left by Weaver and his followers, and the shop's business declined.

Weaver sued Millsaps for libel, alleging that she had made knowingly false statements about his criminal record, his affiliation with the KKK, and his "terroristic threats to her customers." Millsaps moved to dismiss the complaint …, arguing among other things that her statements were truthful protected speech made without actual malice.

In support of the motion, Millsaps presented her own affidavit, along with a verified answer and counterclaim, stating that Weaver is a member of the Neo-Nazi National Alliance, which advocates "new societies throughout the White world which are based on Aryan values and are compatible with the Aryan nature[,]" and World Church of the Creator, whose founder calls for "total war against the Jews and the rest of the goddamned mud races of the world[.]" Additionally, Weaver co-founded a Cartersville-based white supremacist group working to make America a "Eurocentric Christian Nation." Millsaps presented evidence that Weaver advertises these affiliations to news reporters and on social media and his personal blog.

Millsaps averred that, before her personal encounter with Weaver, she was familiar with him, his white supremacist affiliations, and his distribution of antisemitic literature around Cartersville. She knew that Weaver "had a history of violent behavior," including a prior aggravated assault conviction for pepper-spraying an African American man he encountered on the street. {See generally Weaver v. State (Ga. App. 2013) (affirming trial court's denial of Weaver's motion to withdraw his guilty plea). Millsaps also pointed to news articles showing that, on another occasion, Weaver got into a "loud verbal dispute" with a man who was removing his flyers and followed the man with a taser; and that Weaver was given a criminal trespass warning after a Cartersville business owner complained about him placing flyers on cars in the parking lot.}

Millsaps also had heard that Weaver had targeted other Cartersville businesses, including a gym that had kicked him out for posting antisemitic flyers inside. According to Millsaps's verified answer, Weaver and his associates left thousands of negative Google reviews for the gym, vandalized the premises, and made repeated harassing phone calls, including one in which the caller threatened to kill the gym owner, prompting the owner to call the police.

Weaver submitted a verified response to Millsaps's filings, conceding that he had engaged in "review bombing" on her business's Google page, but denying that he had personally threatened to kill anyone, that he was a member of the KKK, or that he had been convicted of a hate crime.

The court concluded that Millsaps's post was on a matter of public concern, and thus subject to the special procedural protections offered by Georgia's anti-SLAPP statute: "Weaver concedes on appeal that he is 'a public figure,' and it is undisputed that Millsaps's challenged comments were made in response to a 'war' that Weaver initiated on a public forum." And the court concluded that Weaver had no reasonable probability of prevailing on the merits:

Although Weaver challenged multiple portions of Millsaps's post in the trial court, on appeal he focuses only on her statement that he "threatened to kill other shop members." Weaver asserts that this statement is false because he never threatened to kill anyone, let alone multiple people. In determining whether Millsaps acted with actual malice, however, the question is not whether Weaver actually made the threat, but whether Millsaps knew when she made her post that he had not made—or probably had not made—the threat.

Millsaps averred that she made her Google post to protect her business and believed the information in the post was true. As noted, Millsaps knew about Weaver's membership in organizations advocating race wars and his history of violent criminal behavior. Millsaps also had heard that Weaver had threatened to kill a local gym owner after the owner kicked Weaver out of the gym. Although Weaver denies personally making any such threat, he has not denied instigating a campaign of harassment against the gym that included negative reviews, vandalism, and repeated phone calls, and he has not shown that no death threat occurred. Accordingly, there is no evidence that Millsaps knew her statement about the death threat was false or probably false.

Weaver also argues that Millsaps acted recklessly because her statement "says 'shopmembers.' Plural. And does not specify who was threatened, but rather … allows the reader to come to different conclusions as to who was threatened, and how many people." But "defamation law overlooks minor inaccuracies and concentrates upon substantial truth." Further, "rhetorical hyperbole … cannot form the basis of a defamation claim."

Here, Millsaps's use of the plural may have been factually inaccurate, in that she presented evidence only of one death threat. But this inaccuracy, or hyperbole, does not go to the substance of her comments and does not prove actual malice. Because there was no evidence—much less clear and convincing evidence—that Millsaps knew her statement was false, or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, the trial court did not err by concluding that Weaver likely would not prevail on his claim. It follows that the court did not err by granting Millsaps's motion to dismiss.

{In light of this conclusion, we do not address the trial court's other basis for concluding that Weaver would not prevail—that Millsaps's statements were true.}

Thomas MacIver Clyde and Jeffrey Howard Fisher represent Millsaps.