The banner of Pastor J.D. Hall’s Facebook page (Photo via Facebook).
In a libel lawsuit that pits a conservative Baptist minister turned news website publisher against a transgender Native American lobbyist, recent court filings turn on two seemingly disconnected questions. First, whether the lobbyist heckled a Montana state Senator; and, secondly, whether the lobbyist’s sometimes explicit rants on social media disqualify her from legal protection.
Adrian Jawort, a lobbyist for Montana Native Vote, is suing Gideon Knox, which does business as The Montana Daily Gazette, for reporting an incident during the legislative session which she claims did not happen and has injured her standing as a lobbyist. Part of the case, which has wrapped in affidavits from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers, centers on what happened as lawmakers were debating bills that would have prohibited transgender athletes from participating in sports and another which would have prohibited doctors from treating transgender minors.
However, an attorney for The Montana Daily Gazette and its publisher, Pastor Jordan “J.D.” Hall, has asked the Richland County Court to rule that statements and postings on social media by Jawort herself have damaged her reputation so severely that she is a “libel proof” figure and not entitled to damages.
The legal theory of a “libel-proof” person is one that courts have used in very limited circumstances. It involves cases in which a person has either been convicted of crimes or handled themselves in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to damage their reputation further.
Meanwhile, Jawort has charged that Hall, who authored the anonymous article on the website, failed to employ even the most basic journalistic standards and was negligent in publishing the article, “Who’s the Gothic Transvestite Haunting the Halls of the Montana Capitol,” on May 3.
The article, the incident and the case
At the crux of the case is an incident that Hall reported in which he alleged that Jawort had become so confrontational that Republican Sen. Butch Gillespie was escorted to the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms ostensibly for protection from Jawort.
After the article published, Jawort asked for a correction, claiming the incident didn’t happen, but Hall refused to change the article. In the court filings, Hall includes affidavits from Republican lawmakers who recounted part of the episode, which he said gave him the factual basis to print the article, although there are no sources, citations or attributions in the writing demonstrating where the information was obtained.
In addition to the incident involving Gillespie, Hall’s attorney, Matthew Monforton, claims that it’s nearly impossible to do damage to Jawort’s reputation because her “behavior during the 2021 legislative session that he deleted much of his twitter account after Gideon Knox (the organization of which Hall is president) propounded a discovery request upon him.”
In court filings, Monforton and Hall refer to Jawort as male, though she on social media and professionally identifies herself as transgender with the pronoun “she.” For purposes of accuracy when quoting court documents, the Daily Montanan has not altered the pronouns in direct quotations of court filings.
But Jawort’s attorneys argue all the social media communication was never requested in the legal discovery process, and they included affidavits from lawmakers who say Jawort was an effective lobbyist and that the confrontation simply didn’t happen – something that Hall had the responsibility for checking prior to publication.
‘A libel proof person’
Several times in a court filing chocked full of social media postings, Monforton apologizes to the court for entering “obscene” documents into the record.
Those social media postings, primarily from Twitter and later deleted, establish what Monforton and Hall believe make Jawort “libel proof.”
To bolster his argument, Monforton includes a number of tweets from Jawort’s Twitter handle, Hero of Weirdos, including ones in which she said she’s having to review a “f—kton of anti-LGBTQ bills” and complains of having to be around “’regular’ white folks for extended periods of time, it quickly becomes socially exhausting.”
Jawort also claimed in February that having two transgender Natives as lobbyists would “*really* f–k with white people’s heads.”
On the Twitter account, Jawort also said that she was acting “kind of snarky” because “disdain and c–tiness is all it deserves coming from these faux, self-proclaimed ‘Constitutionalists.’”
Jawort’s social media ire wasn’t just reserved for lawmakers, Monforton points out, but also took aim at the ACLU and “white allies.”
“People in the ACLU who seem to have an axe to grind against our words they apparently find, too …. f—king Indin… These ACLU people, however, are so ironically f—king patronizing as they actually lamented against our testimony on the side of ‘thug worthy’ conservative,” she posted.
In May, Jawort posted a message to the Legislature: “F—k your #Montaliban theocracy. I am not a political pawn in a chess game – someone to be used for ‘culture war’ clout and fodder. I am a f—king Indigenous Queen of these Indian Lands.”
Those are some of the messages that Monforton uses to build his case that not only was Jawort “entirely unpersuasive as a lobbyist,” but that the Montana Daily Gazette could do no more harm to her reputation than she’d done on social media.
“No lobbyist can make such public statements day after day throughout an entire legislative session, on social media accounts followed by the press and legislators and then come before this court and complain with a straight face that his reputation was damaged by subsequent statements,” the court documents state. “Plaintiff had completely trashed his reputation before Gideon Knox said a word about him.”
The court documents are a volley of examples from both sides trying to prove to the court the other side’s intent. For example, Hall described Jawort in the article as: “Fooling precisely no one, the man has been seen wandering the Montana State Capitol like an out-of-place Sasquatch in goth make-up, looking for a snack or someone to yell at. The ill-tempered, dress-wearing man was regularly seen in the gallery of both the House and Senate, chastising legislators with his wagging, giant man fingers, and sitting in fish-net stockings reapplying his make-up with all the precision of a birthday clown with a bad hangover.”
Despite the war of words, the crux of the case hinges on an incident that Hall insists is well documented, but Jawort claims never happened.
In an affidavit, Sen. Gillespie, R-Etheridge, said that he was approached by a person who he doesn’t know the identity of, and that person began yelling.
“The person began yelling about HB112 being unfair and against humanity – or words to that effect,” Gillespie said. “In response Jeff Laszloffy from the Montana Family Foundation positioned himself between me and the other person and began ushering me towards the Sergeant At Arms near the doors leading to the Senate Floor.”
Lawyers for Jawort, including Raph Graybill and Constance Van Kley, said that no one has ever identified her as the person yelling, and that Hall had the responsibility to ascertain the correct identity of the person before reporting the incident. In Hall’s affidavit, he said he confirmed the incident from “two persons,” but never names those sources.
Jawort’s testimony filed with the court includes stating that she’s never had a one-on-one conversation with Gillespie, so the person couldn’t have been her.
The court filings also present affidavits from Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who claims that “Jawort went out of his way to promote himself and antagonize Republican legislators.”
“He was consistently rude and arrogant when testifying before us,” Skees said. “I and other legislators were aware of angry and vulgar remarks Jawort made on Twitter and other social media platforms, many of which were directed at us. Jawort’s anger and vulgarity expressed on social media platforms further undermined his reputation as a lobbyist and made him entirely unpersuasive to me and other Republican legislators.”
Meanwhile, three attorneys for Jawort include affidavits from Democrat lawmakers Laurie Bishop of Livingston and Jessica Karjala of Billings, which present a different perspective on Jawort’s lobbying.
“I found Adrian to be one of the most prepared advocates in the Capitol during the 2021 legislative session,” Bishop said. “I observed that Adrian takes care in bringing her unique perspective to legislators in a manner that I found professional, engaging and thoughtful.”
Negligence in reporting?
Jawort’s court filings, on the other hand, paint a picture of Hall and his organization as looking for a reason to ridicule her, and argue that the pastor didn’t exercise a reasonable standard of care when reporting that would be expected of any other journalist or publication.
“Hall wrote and published an article serving no purpose other than to ridicule Adrian, planting within that article a made-up story suggesting that Adrian is violent,” the court filings allege. “Only Hall knows what he did to investigate this story and his declaration contains nowhere near enough information to conclude that he made an honest mistake – indeed, Hall appears to insist without evidence that the incident occurred.”
Moreover, the attorneys argue that even if Jawort is “libel proof,” as Hall alleges, it doesn’t mean that the publication can manufacture stories.
“Like so many others, Adrian is a politically engaged citizen who, at times, posts unfiltered thoughts to social media,” the documents said. “Her Twitter activity does not close the courthouse doors.”
The suit also claims that there was no such public controversy stemming from the incident involving Gillespie, and that Hall’s article had “nothing to do with transgender rights or any specific bill.”
Instead, lawyers for Jawort argue that Hall never contacted Gillespie, Laszloffy or the Sergeant-At-Arms, rather merely relied on unnamed sources.
“Adrian has a right of cross-examination to determine the veracity and reasonableness of Hall’s purported reliance on (statements about the incident),” the court documents said.
And the lawsuit also claims that Jawort was never given a chance to respond to the charges because Hall had only reached out to her wanting to do “a personal interest story on you.”
In order to bolster their claims, Jawort’s legal team includes the comments of longtime Montana journalist Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson, who said, “If I were aware of an incident involving institutional officials, I would have at least reached out to those officials in reporting on the incident.”
The court file includes examples from Hall and the Montana Daily Gazette, which Jawort’s lawyers say demonstrate Hall’s crusade to use the website and articles to attack members of the LGBTQ community.
“A parade of misfits, the mentally ill, and personally deceptive ‘trans activists’ have descended upon Montana’s capitol to testify against legislation that would prevent men from beating up women. Another bill opposed by the gaggle of rainbow-bedazzled men sporting both lipstick glitter and five o’clock shadows will prevent doctors from coercing minors into cutting off their penises, or, in other cases, affixing one,” reads an editorial from Hall on Jan. 19. “For some reason, Montana’s LGBTQXYZLMNOP brigade is incensed that women should be protected from men and children should be protected from perverts.”
The court has not set a schedule for this case.
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