Remember back in 2017 when John Oliver did a Last Week Tonight segment about coal company CEO and “geriatric Dr. Evil” Bob Murray, then — as predicted — was sued by Bob Murray the following week? Oliver couldn’t discuss the lawsuit while it was ongoing, but we did get an update when the case was dismissed in February 2018, when Oliver, referencing the original segment, told Murray to “eat shit.” What you might not know, however, is that Murray appealed the case after it was dismissed, so Oliver was yet again forced into silence until the case was recently dropped. Which brings us to last night’s Last Week Tonight, when Oliver was finally free to recap the entire saga … and, in doing so, to start a whole new saga too.
After calling the lawsuit “a bullshit effort to silence us,” Oliver switched his focus to the real issue that was highlighted during the long battle against Murray — a battle that Murray knew he could never win. “We did wonder: What was the point of him putting us through all of this in the first place? I would argue it’s because winning the case was never really his goal, and that brings us to the larger issue that we’re gonna talk about tonight: SLAPP suits,” Oliver said. “SLAPP is an acronym that stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These are frivolous suits with no legal merit specifically designed to stifle public debate or dissent. And these happen all the time.”
Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is also a big fan of SLAPP suits, having admitted that he sued journalist Tim O’Brien in 2006 over his book TrumpNation just to “make his life miserable.” But as Oliver points out, SLAPP suits aren’t always targeted at journalists — they’re also used to silence activists and everyday people, who don’t usually have the legal backing and resources that someone like the host of a TV show enjoys. About 20 states don’t have any anti-SLAPP laws in place to prevent these lawsuits that Oliver refers to as “time-wasting bullshit.” (One of those 20 states, West Virginia, is where Murray filed his suit against Oliver’s show.)
As Oliver notes, the point for Murray was never to win a bunch of lawsuits, but to cultivate a reputation for being very litigious so that people think twice about telling him to “eat shit” publicly — or at least covering the less-than-flattering stories he’s involved in. “Lawsuits are like famous Instagram pugs: They don’t have to work to be considered very, very successful,” Oliver says. If you want proof that Murray’s efforts have been successful, look no further than the new lawsuits he’s involved in with former employees alleging workplace harassment and sexual misconduct. Why, Oliver wonders, aren’t they getting any coverage?
“Even if they are baseless, his lawsuits can do major damage. Ours wound up costing over $200,000 in legal fees. And even though our insurance covered part of it — and we were lucky that HBO stood by us — this lawsuit was infuriating, took up a lot of time and resources, and resulted in a tripling of our libel insurance premiums, despite the fact that, to reiterate, we fucking won this case!” Oliver says. “We badly need effective anti-SLAPP laws nationwide to deter powerful people like Bob Murray from using the courts to shut down people’s legitimate dissent. And I know that after tonight, Murray will probably sue us again, even though everything I’ve said has been rigorously vetted by our lawyers — who, may I add, are getting very tired with us.”
Oliver already knows what’s coming because Murray sent his bosses a letter responding to this segment before it aired, but that’s not stopping Oliver from doing all this bullshit over again: “You know what? I will stand behind our first piece, and I’ll stand behind this one,” he says. At the end of the segment, Oliver fully stands behind his work with some protected speech, a.k.a. ripping Murray to shreds through an elaborate musical number. (They are JOKES, Murray!) Let the new battle begin!