The US Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the group’s executive director Lin Oliver are seeking to have a defamation suit filed against them by children's author Jay Asher thrown out.
In January, Asher filed a lawsuit against SCBWI and Oliver following accusations of sexual harassment from several women who wrote anonymously to Oliver. Asher has denied the accusations and is seeking monetary damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, alleging that Oliver and SCBWI made “false and defamatory statements about him that unfairly damaged his reputation and career.”
Now, lawyers acting on behalf of SCBWI and Oliver have filed a motion arguing that Asher cannot establish “a probability of success on the merits,” and that “as a public figure,” his complaint should be stricken under California’s robust anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute - designed to protect against SLAPPs which are seen as damaging to free speech.
The lawsuit says Asher, whose novels include Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, UK) and What Light (Macmillan Chidlren’s Books, UK), should pay the defendants' legal fees and costs and accuses Asher of blaming SCBWI and Oliver for “the impact of the incredibly poor decisions he has made in his personal life”.
“Plaintiff [Asher] has a carefully crafted public persona of treating women with respect and supporting the burgeoning #MeToo movement,” it states. “In reality, and by Plaintiff’s own admission, he was engaged in serial extra-marital affairs taking place at SCBWI events. Furthermore, according to the allegations of at least seven women, and perhaps more than a dozen, Plaintiff was harassing, intimidating, and retaliating against his former affair partners once their relationships ended.”
The lawsuit says Asher wants to “punish” Oliver for speaking to the press. “But when the allegations became public through independent third parties and SCBWI and Ms. Oliver faced a backlash for apparently failing to recognise the problem and failing to reprimand Plaintiff, they necessarily and appropriately issued statements to the press.”
In a statement to Publishers Weekly, Asher's attorney, Patrick L Fisher, said: “We hope the judge allows us to prove to a jury that SCBWI knowingly issued false statements to the media. There was no allegation, investigation, or finding that Mr. Asher violated SCBWI’s code of conduct. An investigation would have shown these relationships were between consenting adults that Mr Asher had no power over and did not harass. An investigation would have shown this to be a continuation of vindictive harassment Mr. Asher has been subjected to for a decade. SCBWI used its status to greatly damage the reputation of one of the country’s leading young adult authors, someone who spent his entire career standing up for victims and fighting harassment."
Asher, through his attorney, said: “I repeatedly tried to get Lin Oliver to set the record straight. I provided her with witnesses who could refute the allegations, but she refused to contact them. I offered proof with emails, texts, and a polygraph test, but she refused to investigate. Instead, she relied on anonymous and contradictory claims. This left me no choice other than filing a lawsuit to set the record straight.”
Lawyers will make the motion to dismiss on 23rd April. The Bookseller has contacted Asher's agent for comment.