In a post titled “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation” on her blog PopFront, San Jose native Meghan Herning theorized to her 200-ish subscribers about parallels she saw between the Taylor Swift song “Look WhatYou Made Me Do” and a documentary she watched featuring Neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville.
“In my personal opinion, I thought the tone of lyrics in Swift’s song, like, ‘I don’t like your kingdom keys / They once belonged to me’ were similar to you chants of ‘You will not replace us’ in Charlottesville,” Herning says.
So when Herning received a letter via email a couple of weeks ago from Swift’s Los Angeles-based lawyer, William J. Briggs II, demanding that she take down her blog post or face legal action for defamation, the 30-year-old Sacramento resident was shocked.
“I’m like, how on earth could she have found this?” Herning says. “I don’t think enough people even read it for a Google alert to be triggered.”
Herning graduated from law school, though she works in the solar power industry these days. So after doing some research to authenticate the letter, she decided to contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help.
The ACLU took on her case. Earlier this week, the organization hit back with a letter to Briggs refuting Swift’s charges on freedom of speech grounds.
“The powerful shouldn’t be able to deploy these types of legal threats to silence opinions and press they don’t like,” says Christine Sun, one of three ACLU attorneys representing Herning.
The spat has since caused dozens of other commentators to share similar experiences with Swift on Twitter.
But the pop star, whose estimated net worth stands at $280 million, is by no means the only powerful celebrity to sic their lawyers on writers. Just this week, the rapper Jay Z’s attorney attacked a Digital Music News reporter over an article the attorney considered “false.”
University of Southern California journalism professor Joe Saltzman, who specializes in perceptions of journalists in pop culture, says this type of threat happens all too frequently.
“They want to set an example,” Saltzman says. “They want to say, ‘Look, we don’t care if you have 200 subscribers or two million. You write something bad about my client, we’re going after you.'”
Saltzman says writers are fairly powerless to do anything about this. Indeed, many of those who shared their own stories of being threatened by Swift’s lawyers over the past couple of days admitted to buckling under the intimidation tactics.
KQED reached out to several of these commentators. The only one who responded said he couldn’t share any information about the cease and desist order for legal reasons and asked not to be identified.
But Herning thinks writers should learn to defend themselves.
“I hope that other journalists who have been threatened legally educate themselves on their legal rights,” she says.
Sun says Swift’s attorney, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has until Monday, Nov. 13 to drop the charges against Herning. If that doesn’t happen, the ACLU might file a federal lawsuit, Sun says.
Meanwhile, Swift’s new album, Reputation, comes out Friday. And so far, there’s been no comment from the pop star herself on the issues raised by Herning’s case.