By John Aman
David Barton critics beware: There’s now a price to pay if you want to defame the popular historian, author and speaker with false and outlandish charges.
Barton won a $1 million defamation judgment in August against two left-leaning candidates for the Texas State Board of Education. The pair, Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Judy Jennings, charged in a 2010 campaign video that Barton, a consultant to the Board, was “known for speaking at white-supremacist rallies.”
That highly charged claim stems from two 1991 speeches Barton gave to groups linked to the racist and anti-Semitic “Christian Identity” movement. Barton, recognized as a strong friend of Israel, acknowledges speaking to the groups but said in court filings he did not know in advance about the racist ideology of his hosts.
Barton, the founder of WallBuilders, a group “dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes,” later established a vetting system to avoid repeat engagements and has not addressed similar gatherings since. He told the court that he has given some 8,000 speeches in the two decades following his two 1991 speeches and that addressing “white-supremacist rallies” is not what he is known for.
“We … apologize”
After nearly three years of pre-trial wrangling, including a trip to the Texas Supreme Court, where Bell-Metereau and Jennings failed in their bid to have the suit dismissed, the two settled with Barton just before the case was to go to trial in July 2014.
They agreed to give Barton $1 million and issued a contrite apology repudiating their 2010 claim that Barton is “known for speaking at white-supremacist rallies”: “We understand that this statement suggested that David Barton is a white supremacist, and that the two organizations he is affiliated with, WallBuilder Presentations, Inc. and WallBuilders L.L.C., were associated with or supportive of white supremacists. After learning more about Mr. Barton, we realize this statement was false. We separately and jointly apologize to Mr. Barton for damage to him individually and to his two organizations as a result of that statement.”
Barton told WND he was “very gratified” by the win and has given the monetary award away.
He also has quickly put the legal judgment to use, winning a retraction from Georgia congressional candidate Bob Barr. In a July 8 debate, Barr challenged his Barton-endorsed opponent to disavow the Christian historian because Barton had been “roundly and uniformly criticized, with facts, for taking positions that are anti-Semitic.” Barr later sent out a tweet calling Barton an “anti-Israel anti-Semitic radical.”
But when Barton’s legal team notified Barr that his claim had resulted in a painful monetary penalty for two other candidates in Texas, Barr reversed himself: “I hereby rescind in their entirety the aforesaid statements about David Barton made by me or in my behalf.”
“So, the judgments becoming known are having their desired effect,” Barton said, “in checking the growth of various falsehoods that have been freely spread in recent years.”
Barton also won in court against W.S. Smith, a self-described atheist who published an online article in 2010 calling Barton “an admitted liar” whose “books have been picked apart time and again and exposed as fallacious.”
Smith was a no-show throughout the lawsuit, disappearing shortly after Barton sued him in September 2011. Barton’s legal team hired a private detective and published notices in Texas newspapers statewide in an unsuccessful attempt to find the elusive writer.
Smith disappeared after he boasted, in an email to Huffington Post columnist Chris Rodda that he was “happy to meet” Barton in court “because the truth in [sic] on my side.”
“If this is what you want, Mr. Barton, then let’s do it,” Smith said. “Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on. The path you’ve chosen will lead only to your embarrassment and ruin.”
Three years later, a Texas court found Smith’s assertions about David Barton both false and defamatory.
Barton’s legal triumph came after some critics expressed deep skepticism about the merits of his suit. The Texas Freedom Network, a self-described “watchdog monitoring far-right issues,” knocked Barton’s “outrageous defamation lawsuit” and called it an attempt by a “prominent Texas Republican to chill free speech about his questionable past associations.”
The organization, which maintains a “David Barton Watch” on its website, was cited by Bell-Metereau and Jennings as a key source for their false claims about Barton. In their admission of fault, the two said they “believed that statement [Barton is ‘known for speaking at white-supremacist rallies’] had been fact-checked by our political consultant, Scott Garrison, who relied for confirmation solely on information provided him from The Texas Freedom Network.”
Asked to comment for WND, the Texas Freedom Network declined.
Rob Boston, a longtime Barton critic at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the lawsuit “the legal equivalent of a schoolyard bully’s shakedown” in 2011. Informed about Barton’s triumph, Boston told WND he did not know why the case ended as it did and wished “these individuals had stood up to Barton more aggressively.”
“I have been critical of Barton’s peddling of bad history since 1993,” he said, “and have no plans to stop.”
Chris Rodda, author of “Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History,” invited Barton to sue her, too, after he went after Bell-Metereau, Jennings, and Smith.
“I’m feeling a bit left out here,” Rodda told her FreeThoughtBlogs.com readers in September 2011. “I’ve worked very hard to spread the word that Barton is a liar. … What else do I have to do to get him to sue ME?”
Rodda responded to news about Barton’s legal success with a lively statement for WND, proclaiming she found it “unfathomably ironic and completely outrageous” that “David Barton, a man who has made a career of lying about others,” has won a defamation lawsuit.
Rodda, who is research director at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, suggested her employer, an opponent of what it says it religious intimidation by evangelicals in the military, may soon take Barton to court: “For some time now, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been considering filing a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Barton for all of the blatant and deliberate lies he has told on his radio show and elsewhere about MRFF and its founder and president, Mikey Weinstein. Now seems like a quite appropriate time for MRFF to proceed with that.”
Why Barton sued
A favored target of the secular left for decades, Barton considered a lawsuit 20 years ago “on some very easy to disprove lies.” However, as a public figure, he needed to do more than show that truth was on his side. He also had to demonstrate economic harm to prevail in court. And that, he said, meant hiring an economist for $100,000 to document financial damage.
“We dropped pursuing anything at that time,” Barton recalled, “but over the last 20 years, it has continued to grow and snowball and one unrebutted, uncontested lie – because nothing happened – became bigger and greater, so people added more as they repeated themselves.”
Examples abound. Blogger Fred Clark labels Barton an “outrageous liar” in a 2013 Patheos post. A Crooks and Liars blogpost from 2012 calls Barton a “Liar and a Rat Fink.” Unnamed Barton critics launched their own Facebook page, “David Barton and WallBuilders Are Liars,” and atheist Ed Brayton vented on Nov. 28, “David Barton is simply one of the most shameless liars in this country.”
All that has taken an economic toll.
Barton’s books have been met, he said, by a “cottage industry” of critics rehearsing old claims about his alleged lack of truthfulness and supposed racist and anti-Semitic connections.
“There were concerted efforts on Amazon book reviews and elsewhere to repeat those types of things, and that hurt sales,” Barton said.
When the real financial impact of his over-the-top critics became clear, “We said, OK, it’s time to put our foot down. This is something that does have economic consequences, not to mention character, reputation. And so that’s where we decided to make the move and go after the lawsuit.”
While being able to show economic harm made it possible to go to court with a defamation claim, Barton said his real motive for bringing suit was to clear his name.
“There’s nothing greater than your reputation,” he said, adding that the biblical proverb, “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1 NKVJ), guided his decision to sue.
And so did Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson – two American founders libeled and defamed by opponents. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Barton said, fought back in court after a man attacked him in print as a “quack doctor and a murderer.” Rush won a large monetary settlement, closing the door to future speculation about whether he was, in fact, a “quack.”
While Rush “vindicated his name,” Jefferson did not, Barton said. His decision not to take his detractors to court has “caused him now to be considered guilty of what he didn’t deny.” One consequence, Barton offered, is continued speculation about Jefferson’s alleged infidelity with Sally Hemings.
More legal action may come
With victory in hand, the next step, Barton said, is to publicize the legal outcome and, if need be, bring a legal response to other defamatory statements. While very expensive and time-consuming, Barton hopes his court victory “will be somewhat of a preventative for folks just throwing out falsehoods and repeating them, adding to them with no consequences.”
Legal action, he said, is “one of the tools that we have at our disposal to protect reputation and livelihood both.”
And a tool, he added “we will definitely consider using.”
John Aman is a writer and communications consultant. He is the co-author of “Team Obama: All the President’s Real Men and Women” and formerly worked for one of the nation’s largest Christian broadcast ministries.