Kathy Griffin Speaks Out on Legal Nightmare: ‘I’m Not a Terrorist’
The comedian is speaking out for the first time about the multiple lawsuits that have accused her of “cyber terrorism” against the Covington Catholic High School students.
For three decades, Kathy Griffin made her living as a comedian. “Now I’m a professional defendant,” she says.
After undergoing a Secret Service investigation in 2017 over a photo in which she held up a Donald Trump mask covered in fake blood, Griffin has spent much of the past two years embroiled in two separate lawsuits for her response to the Covington Catholic High School students made famous for their confrontation with a Native American activist captured in a viral video.
The teenager at the center of the January 2019 scuffle at the March for Life protest near the Lincoln Memorial, Nicholas Sandmann, and his parents famously sued the Washington Post last February for $250 million for defamation, arguing that the national outlet assassinated his character. (His complaint was settled in July.)
And while Sandmann is not named in the lawsuits against Griffin, over a dozen of his classmates are.
In September 2019, six families and four individuals sued the comedian for allegedly doxxing the Covington Catholic High School students involved in the March for Life incident after Griffin tried to mobilize her 2.2 million Twitter followers to find and identify children in the video.
“Name these kids. I want NAMES. Shame them. If you think these fuckers wouldn’t dox you in a heartbeat, think again,” Griffin tweeted, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
Griffin later followed up her request several times, telling her Twitter followers they “should let this fine Catholic school [CCH] know how you feel about their students behavior toward the Vietnam veteran” and rejoicing that her posts had “triggered lot of verrrry threatened bros. Yummy. It’s delicious.”
But while the 10-page suit argued Griffin’s call-to-action was doxxing since it used “the internet to source out and collect an individual’s personal and private information for the purpose of publicly releasing that information online in order to harass, humiliate or retaliate”—a Kentucky judge disagreed.
When Griffin found out that the federal judge on the case was 84-year-old William Bertelsman, she says she was “shitting bricks” because she felt like “this old white guy is going to think I’m outrageous and vulgar and probably hates me from the Trump photo.”
“He was appointed by my boyfriend Jimmy Carter,” Griffin says, “but still I’m like, ugh, 84 and in Kentucky.”
So when Bertelsman in April rejected the argument that Griffin’s actions had jurisdiction in the state because local residents had been asked to shame the high schoolers, she was immensely relieved. In dismissing the suit, Bertelsman added that if he had allowed Griffin to be sued in Kentucky it would “also violate basic fairness or due process.”
After that, she breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “You know what? Maybe this shit can be fair sometimes.”
Three months later, the plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal and a hearing is scheduled for January 2021 in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. “So obviously, being a bleeding heart liberal I’m afraid to get three Trump-appointed judges on the appellate court,” Griffin says. If two or three of them were appointed by Trump, “I’m going to be very, very nervous,” Griffin says, adding, “I’m not a terrorist, pass it on.”
She hired lawyers from the law firm Greenberg Traurig to defend her in the appeal. “I insisted they fire Rudy,” she jokes, referring to President Trump’s lawyer, who resigned from that firm in May 2018 to focus on the Mueller investigation.
Michael J. Grygiel, one of those attorneys, told The Daily Beast they are “hopeful” and believe the appellate court will uphold Bertelsman’s ruling that Griffin can’t be sued in the state of Kentucky for tweets she made in California.
“The argument here is by tweeting—and therefore exercising her First Amendment rights—the plaintiffs allege they were harassed,” Grygiel said. The most stunning part of the lawsuit, Grygiel explained, is the use of Kentucky criminal laws as precedent in Griffin’s civil lawsuit. By using criminal statutes, the lawsuit and subsequent motions are basically suggesting the comedian is guilty of several crimes—including cyber terrorism and harassment—to bolster their argument without any justification or legal authority to make the accusation.
“There is a mechanism under Kentucky law where civil cases can be brought and its allegations state that criminal laws were violated,” the lawyer said. “In this case, the plaintiffs have transmogrified criminal statutes into an attempt to impose civil liability on Kathy Griffin based on her first amendment rights. She is not being prosecuted, however.”
Still, the fact that the lawsuit accuses Griffin of those serious crimes has unnerved her. “Not being a lawyer—I’m not Steve Mnuchin trying to act like I’m a lawyer—but from what I understand there’s something where they let you take a charge like cyber terrorism and put it into a case like this,” she says, adding, “I don’t want to end up losing my house and dying in a Covington jail.”
Grygiel also noted that crafty legal maneuvering is unique to the lawsuit in Kentucky federal court. The other lawsuit, which was filed in August by a second group of Covington students in a state suit, is suing Griffin and a slew of other celebrities for defamation.
Some high-profile names in the lawsuit include: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, commentator Ana Navarro, activist Shaun King, New Mexico Rep. Debra Haaland, political analyst Matthew Dowd, author Reza Aslan, and Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse. The eight unnamed students who filed the legal action are seeking millions, claiming they were defamed by these celebrities online for their behavior in the March for Life event.
So far, a judge has only granted dismissals for Warren and Haaland.
“We have filed a motion to dismiss on behalf of Kathy Griffin and that motion is pending and under consideration by the court,” Grygiel said. “We are confident that the court will similarly find—as did the federal court—that Kathy Griffin can’t be sued in Kentucky because there is no jurisdiction.”
Griffin still believes all of this stems from the now-infamous photo that prompted the Secret Service investigation. The night of the 2020 election, after Trump went out on a White House stage and falsely declared victory, she posted it again on Twitter without comment. “I had been waiting for a time to repost it and I thought that was the appropriate time,” she says.
“The Secret Service contacted me again,” she reveals, adding that the agent told her the flag came directly from the White House. It is actually the third time she has landed on their radar. The second was when she responded to Trump wondering out loud if he should be taking insulin by joking, “Syringe with nothing but air inside it would do the trick.” That tweet has since been deleted.
“Of course I’m nervous about how much that might play into this Covington stuff,” she says. “It probably all goes back to the photo.” While a lot of comics tell scathing jokes about Trump, Griffin is well aware that she’s still the “darling” of the right-wing outrage machine.
“This whole time, I’ve really been fearful about revealing this stuff,” she adds. “And I’m really just at the point where, first of all, my investigation was unprecedented. Even when Lenny Bruce was investigated it was by local P.D. But never in America has a comedian, much less a private citizen, been investigated by two federal agencies for something so specious. I thought that was over and done with. And with this Covington stuff, I just can’t believe they’re appealing after the dismissal.”
Griffin likes to tell younger comedians, “If you make any money, save it. Because you never know when a rainy day is coming and it’s been raining in my life for about three years.”
— with additional reporting from Molly Jong-Fast
For more, listen to Kathy Griffin on The Last Laugh podcast.