Tom Stienstra, Chronicle Outdoor Writer, Loses Defamation Suit Following Pot Bust

Categories: Marijuana, Media
A legal setback for the outdoorsman
Update: Tom Stienstra responds, outlines his complaints. 

In a development that inspired many uninspired puns, Chronicle outdoor columnist Tom Stienstra was in 2010 arrested for purportedly growing weed in the town of Weed

Vile puns are no crime, nor is reporting on a public figure's arrest for alleged marijuana cultivation (No charges were ever filed against Stienstra following the marijuana arrest, incidentally). Hell, we covered it. So did Stienstra's own Chronicle, Fox News, ABC 10, the Sacramento Bee, and the Redding Record-Searchlight

So did a fly-fishing blog called The Trout Underground. And, in August of last year, Stienstra filed suit against fly-fisherman and blogger Tom Chandler in small-claims court, alleging defamation based on this snarky but rather straightforward 2010 article

Following a courtroom clash between the outdoorsman and the fly-fisherman, a Siskiyou County commissioner meted out justice on Nov. 19 of last year -- and the fly-fisherman won. Like an undersized catch, Stienstra's lawsuit was tossed out. 

The ruling -- which is only two pages long and can be read here -- was quite simple. In waiting nearly three years to file suit, Stienstra let the statute of limitations lapse.

That doomed Stienstra from the get-go. But County Commissioner JoAnn M Bicego also seemed unimpressed with his supplemental legal arguments. She disagreed with his contention that a blog post is continually being published and republished due to the "dynamic character of the internet." Instead, case law has established that since Chandler's article ran in April 2010, Stienstra's opportunity to make a legal claim lapsed in April of 2011. 

Stienstra's novel claim that the Communications Decency Act, of all things, would somehow extend this timeline seemed to confuse the court: "The Communications Decency Act, to the extent it would apply to this case, would shield Mr. Chandler from liability from comments posted by third parties on his blog, but it would not alter the applicable statute of limitations." 

So, the actual content of the article never came into question. Reading the offending material, it's difficult to perceive what could be construed as libelous or defamatory. After perusing the story at SF Weekly's behest, Jim Ewert, the general counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher's Association, agreed: "I don't see anything on the face of the blog that jumps out at me."

Chandler -- who crowed over his victory in this ebullient blog post -- has his own theory. "My belief is that this whole mess was never about libel," he writes. "Instead, the Trout Underground's article about Mr. Stienstra's arrest was the only mention of his arrest appearing on the first page of Google results for "Tom Stienstra.I believe Stienstra wanted it removed, and that the bullying letters and the lawsuit were designed to make the post disappear."

In the ruling against Stienstra, it is noted that the writer complained that Chandler's article "remains on the first page of hits when his name is entered into the Google search engine." 

Our message for Stienstra has not yet been returned. 

Chandler's article regarding his weed bust remains on that first Google page of hits, however. And now, another weed-related article is on the first page as well. Tomorrow may bring more. 

"In other words," writes a triumphant Chandler, "Stienstra didn't do himself any favors."

Update, 4 p.m.: Stienstra sent an e-mail our way: 

The judge ruled I could not collect damages solely due to the "Single Print Rule," held in the past for print publications, that puts a 1-year statute of limitations on the ability to collect damages for libel, that she applied to an internet blog post.

I believe that law needs to be changed to stop bloggers like Chandler and anonymous posters from publishing lies and defaming people on the internet.

In court, it was revealed that Tom Chandler made no attempt to get the truth, not even a single phone call to anybody, before and after he defamed me.

I was not involved in the case. In the 11-page affidavit that led to the encounter, I was not mentioned even one time. I was never charged with a crime. I won the only action filed in the matter, against the Department of Justice and Siskiyou County with the U.S. Attorney's Office to recover property.

It may disappoint some people who want me to champion their cause, and others who want to defame me, but I don't use marijuana. Just not my thing and never has been.

To get the blog material removed, I advised Chandler's attorney today that I am considering suing for injunctive relief. Even though I cannot win damages for libel because of the statute of limitations, I can ask that they pay all attorney fees in the process of an injunction..

Considering we have tried every avenue to get false, libelous and defamatory material removed in a fair manner, and they have resisted, we believe we will be awarded attorney fees in full if he fails to comply.

In the entire process, not once has Chandler defended what he wrote because it was accurate, honest and truthful or just plain the right thing to do. He can't because it's bullshit. The guy would not have graduated my journalism class.

For my work in the San Francisco Chronicle, I won the Presidents Award, Best of the Best, as outdoor writer of the year for a record third time last fall from the Outdoors Writers Association of America.

When asked what was specifically objectionable within this fly-fishing article and how it differed from the many other publications that covered the original story, Stienstra sent us an excerpt from a court filing. It does not address our latter question but does dissect the fly-fishing blog point-by-point -- and is far, far longer than the offending article. Those interested in Stienstra's rationale can read that document here

H/T   |   SFCitizen

My Voice Nation Help

Firstly, I would introduce Mr. Stienstra to the "Streisand Effect". Look it up, Mr. Stienstra. Your actions have caused another marijuana bust entry to appear near the top of the results on a Google search of your name, namely, this very article. What really disturbs me is that someone who thinks of himself as a journalist is thinking he can suppress a news article (yes, news article, even though it is a blog and mostly someone's personal opinion) through a court injunction even though he lost a defamation suit. You need to review your journalism class notes on the first amendment! This is egregious enough for a journalist to consider that I will submit this article to the popular news blog started by the guy who coined the term "Streisand effect". An article there will undoubtedly rise to the top of a Google search.


I don't have any particular opinion about who was right and who was wrong, but I am curious. Did Mr. TC White do any reporting or sourcing on the article? Did he call anyone or quote from a press release? I'm certain the facts were probably not in dispute, but for many of us who work in the old fashioned press, we see a lot of bloggers who don't seem to understand rule one about reporting. It isn't the platform, but the journalistic standards that count and you owe it to your audience to the due diligence of reporting 101.  


As the blogger sued by Stienstra, I'd like to congratulate the SF Weekly for writing an intelligent, thoughtful article about this fiasco. 

As your legal expert noted, there's nothing defamatory about my original blog post, which -- like all the other stories published by media outlets -- simply noted Stienstra's arrest. The fact that he was arrested isn't in dispute. 

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped Mr. Stienstra from suing me, and -- failing that -- harassing my family with emails and letters threatening to have my children taken away or an IRS audit performed. 

It's unpretty stuff, and I doubt even his loyal readers would understand.

Also, his threat to file for injunctive relief is simply a fool's blustery attempt to save face. He's been threatening to file since he lost the case (I actually urged him to do so in comments under another story).

He knows that if he does file, a simple anti-SLAPP motion would end his suit, saddle him with all the legal fees, and put his defamation claims to the sword once and for all. I doubt we'll see it.

One correction to your story. You said the contents of the blog post weren't argued in court. They were, but the judge -- correctly -- issued her opinion based on the statute of limitations. Like his other arguments, Stienstra's assertions of error on my part (much less "lies") fell flat. The facts aren't much in dispute.

Finally, Stienstra's embarassing public meltdown aside, this case does touch on a pair of "new media" issues.

First, I believe I was sued because Mr. Stienstra wanted to clean up his online image, and eliminating the only story about the arrest appearing on the first page of Google made me a tempting target. 

Anecdotal evidence (I've spoken with other bloggers) suggests threats of a lawsuit are common when people want posts -- with high search engine placings -- taken down.

Second, newspapers have access to legal resources that no blogger does. In this instance, Stienstra assumed I'd fold under the weight of his threats, his bullying and his celebrity (if he could bring the weight of his considerable ego to bear, perhaps I would have buckled). 

I didn't (thanks to help from to the Harvard-based Digital Media Law Project and San Francisco free speech attorney Joshua Koltun), but I suspect a majority of bloggers -- most of whom do not have a journalism background -- would have.

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