Wanna Hear What I Really Think? Got $6,000?

Image by AMagill via Flickr

So much for “free” speech.

Just got off the phone with an agent who sells “E and O” — errors and omissions insurance — as I start to figure out how to protect my ass(ets) as a writer. He’s sending me several applications, one of which, the multimedia version, is really long. Of course it is!

The joy of “independent writing”? Anyone can sue us anytime. The latest darling of the suit-happy are SLAPP suits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Which means, unless you work on staff for a Big Media Company (with in-house staff attorneys whose highly-paid job it is to protect you and, more importantly, your employer) you’re toast, baby.

More and more, writers are strong-armed into signing contracts that leave us holding the bag in case someone we cover sues the media outlet for whom we’ve done the — freelance — work.

There’s no better way to make sure we write about puppies and kittens and rainbows than knowing one false move can mean our IRAs are going to get garnisheed in a settlement. The saber-rattling by those with very deep pockets — hmmmm, the wealthy and powerful? — means many of us slap duct tape over our mouths every morning, no matter what madness and malfeasance we discover.

“Independence” is a relative term.

One lawyer I spoke to, knowing the writing life, (beyond lucrative TV and film), delicately inquired, “Do you have any assets?” The answer, having worked long and hard and been really disciplined about driving clapped-out old cars and wearing (mostly) consignment shop shoes is “Yes.” I save 15 percent of my income every year, even when that income is so small I think: “Why bother?”

And, this being the U.S, a nuisance lawsuit is both nauseating and much more probable than I’d like.

Suiting up, then, is quite the challenge, requiring the (paid) services and advice and expertise of my accountant (becoming a company); an attorney (making sure it’s all done properly) and an insurance agent. Unlike car or home insurance, I can’t cough up that dough each month — it’s one lump sum, on my income, a fortune. There is cheaper insurance but — funny thing!– it’s capped at a much lower amount.

Why should you care?

Every day, there are posts I don’t write — or write and don’t publish — because, who needs it? Like many of my colleagues, I’ve got other things to worry about without some $$$$$-mad aggrieved plaintiff ruining my life. That costs you, dear readers, because there’s all sorts of (interesting) stuff it simply isn’t worth mentioning, for fear of such a suit. I know, personally, other independent writers backing away slowly, if regretfully, from smart, incisive, tough, investigative work for this very reason.

Believe it or not, not every writer wants to focus on all-fluff-all the time. But without a safety net, you can’t safely leap too far.

I’m thinking of setting up a Paypal account — you really want my unvarnished opinions? Help me speak truth to power, and not lose my home/assets/savings in the process.

5 thoughts on “Wanna Hear What I Really Think? Got $6,000?

  1. marc422

    Something really needs to be done about this. The lesson I’m learning the hard way right now is that you can absolutely be right, but the cost of getting to the point where you can prove you’re right and win the case is prohibitively and absurdly high. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling the truth.

    Speech is free if you can afford it.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    It is ironic that we now have the most democratic ways to communicate — like blogging — but, no matter how thoughtful, are subject to this very real fear. I serve on the board of a 1400 member writers’ group and so we’re very aware of this issue and who is being affected by SLAPP suits. It has a deeply chilling effect and is abusive of the court system.

    I spent the earlier part of my career in Canada whose judicial system is sufficiently different that nuisance suits are rare.

  3. So… what happened to that whole freedom of speech thing? Oh that’s right. We’ve progressively been giving up that right over the last few decades. Now, we’re giving up thr right to sugar, salt, and anything else deemed “bad.” Come on people, learn to think for yourselves and take a joke! I for one, would love to hear how you really feel.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Seriously, Suzanna, I have a post I’d love to publish but the guy in question is loaded and nasty — and why poke the cobra? I just think readers need to know what’s going on these days, because “independent” can mean “toothless” unless you’re willing to brazen it out in court or — maybe — you have no assets to protect.

  5. ragnar

    Seems to me that a good lawyer could set up a trust with all your assets in it to protect you from lawsuits.

    Then you could get sued until the sun stops shining but no one will get anything if you lose.

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