Coal King Begs Court to Gag John Oliver

The CEO of America’s largest privately owned coal company is suing the late-night comedian for defamation—and wants to silence his show in the meantime.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

A coal baron is seeking a gag order against John Oliver and HBO. The baron in question, Robert Murray, sued Oliver for defamation earlier this month, alleging that the HBO host’s June 18 show was character assassination.

While the litigation plays out, Murray wants Oliver to stop talking about him—and he wants HBO barred from re-broadcasting the episode in question. In a motion filed in the Marshall County Circuit Court in West Virginia on June 28, Murray’s lawyers asked Judge Jeffrey Cramer to bar HBO from re-broadcasting the June 18 episode of Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight, and to bar Oliver and the other defendants (including the show’s writers) from discussing the lawsuit in public. That could mean HBO would have to take down any YouTube videos of the episode, according to First Amendment litigator Ken White, who called Murray’s effort to get a gag order “astonishingly frivolous.”

In the filing, Murray’s lawyers said Oliver incited his audience to “vigilantism” against the coal baron. Spammers tried to crash his company’s website, according to the motion, and the company had to take its entire site down on June 20 “to implement new, increased security measures.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, HBO called Murray Energy’s request “a dangerous and unprecedented violation of the First Amendment rights of HBO, John Oliver and the show, and we look forward to presenting our case in court.”

Oliver’s viewers have also been calling employees of Murray Energy, according to the filing, and saying, “Tell Bob Murray to eat shit!”

According to the filing, one caller said, “Your owner is a pussy and he’s fat!”

“Others demanded that Plaintiffs ‘Stop with their bullshit lawsuits’ or asked, ‘Why are you suing John Oliver?’” the motion said.

The motion quoted another caller as saying, “This is a squirrel, [email protected]@@ you Bob, [email protected]@@ you Bob!” and another as telling employees to “watch their back.”

The motion said Murray’s son also got a phone call “that wished him death.”

The motion described this as part of the “John Oliver Effect,” and noted that Time and Fortune have reported on the enormous response that people criticized on his show receive from his viewers.

The motion also says hacking could endanger workers in Murray’s mines.

“Murray Energy hosts sensitive computer networks responsible for monitoring all critical safety aspects relating to underground mine conditions,” the motion said. “These systems monitor, among other things, the quality and composition of breathable air, seismic events, and all other critical aspects that ensure the complete safety of all underground personnel. A security breach of this network literally is a threat to life itself.”

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Murray’s business is suffering, according to the complaint; the coal baron’s attorneys wrote that the company’s phone system had to be taken down and upgraded, and that employees can’t get back to customers fast enough because of the time it takes to deal with harassment.

Murray’s health is suffering as well, according to the complaint. It holds that he “has suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable injury to his health so long as he and his companies are under attack.” Murray has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic and fatal lung disease, and the complaint says the stress is making his symptoms worse.

“These events, which continue to haunt Mr. Murray, have been so exhausting that he can barely walk by the end of the day,” the motion said. “Mr. Murray lives in fear for his physical safety, and has increased security presence as a result.”

The motion includes sworn affidavits from a Murray Energy receptionist and the company’s IT manager, as well as Murray himself.

Murray’s team is asking Judge Cramer to bar HBO from re-broadcasting the June 18 episode of Last Week Tonight and to keep Oliver and the other plaintiffs from publicly discussing the lawsuit.

Ken White, a First Amendment litigator at Brown White & Osborn LLP in Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast that if the motion is granted, the company could try to get YouTube videos of the episode pulled down—“the sort of ambiguity they will try to take advantage of later,” White added.

“The gag order motion is astonishingly frivolous and potentially sanctionable,” White said. “The First Amendment prohibits prior restraint on speech.”

White said the circumstances under which a judge will grant what’s called “prior restraint”—telling somebody they can’t say something before they have even said it—are extremely narrow, and that Murray’s motion probably doesn’t fit.

“The censorship demanded here is breathtaking and utterly meritless,” White continued. “The motion reflects the arrogance of plaintiffs who believe they control a local judiciary that will give them anything they want regardless of the rule of law.”

James Sammataro, a media attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Miami who specializes in First Amendment issues, told The Daily Beast that judges usually only grant the kind of gag orders that Murray wants in cases where national security could be at risk. And he said Murray’s motion is “a veiled threat” to outlets that have the YouTube video embedded in their stories about the lawsuit. The motion, if granted, would force HBO to take down all video clips of the episode, Sammataro said.

“Murray’s request is seeking to preclude other news reporting agencies from displaying the offending clips based on the actions of third-parties,” said Sammataro, who practices entertainment law and has worked on First Amendment cases.

“These agencies possess an unfettered right to report the news, including the impact of John Oliver’s viewers’ reaction to the story.”