The First Amendment doesn’t give journalists a license to print known fabrications, then refuse to correct them.

Graphic: Shahid vs San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Shahid Buttar, a progressive activist, constitutional lawyer, and two-time candidate to represent California’s 12th congressional district, today filed a defamation lawsuit against the San Francisco Chronicle. The complaint charges the Chronicle with both reckless disregard for the truth and actual malice, for publishing known lies about Buttar manufactured by a serial accuser.

“The Constitution permits the press wide latitude to cover public figures,” said Buttar. “But it doesn’t allow the press to weaponize known fabrications. To print uncorroborated information — and then to refuse to run corrections even when confronted with conflicting evidence — is both reckless and malicious.”

Here are the facts of the case: On July 22, 2020, the Chronicle ran an article (in its print edition) under the headline, “Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi’s Election Opponent, Accused of Sex Harassment.” It ran another story on July 24. Both articles were based on a self-published essay in which Elizabeth Croydon alleged that Buttar had sexually harassed her.

What the Chronicle failed to mention in either of its stories was that Ms. Croydon is widely known for launching lies. Over a dozen people who know her published an impassioned open letter: “The accuser is well known in the D.C. social-justice community. Unfortunately, this troubled individual has a long history of fabricating attacks against innocent people.”

Indeed, upon investigating Ms. Croydon’s claims, other news outlets reported that Croydon’s allegations were dubious. Here’s the Bay Area Report: “Two women who knew Buttar in the 2000s told the B.A.R. there was no credibility to what Croydon alleges occurred.” Here’s the Intercept: “The Intercept has spoken to several people who recounted having disturbing interactions with Croydon that caused them to question her credibility.”

In other words: The Chronicle flunked Journalism 101. Specifically, it ignored multiple voices who had made themselves readily available. By stark contrast, the Bay Area Reporter interviewed these witnesses and reported their testimonies, and the Intercept at least allowed their information to inform its writing.

The Chronicle’s stories represent character assassination disguised as journalism.

“Even though the Chronicle is bigger and better resourced, it couldn’t be bothered to perform the most basic due diligence,” said Buttar. “That recklessness is bad enough with a garden-variety, dog-bites-man story. When it throws a grenade like fabricated sexual harassment claims into the middle of a once-in-a-generation federal election, that recklessness crosses into malice.”

Buttar continued, “It’s important to recognize the role of racism and white supremacy in this defamation. First, the lies about me match well-worn patterns from the Jim Crow South. Second, I’m a brown Muslim immigrant who was challenging the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and racism isn’t just about race; it’s also about power. In this context, for the newspaper of record to amplify false accusation, and then fail to correct its record — that’s as insidious a reflection of white supremacy as burning a cross outside City Hall.”

Shahid for Change is the campaign to elect Shahid Buttar, a Pakistani-American constitutional lawyer challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her seat in California’s 12th congressional district.


Text of the Lawsuit

This complaint was filed in US District Court for the Northern District of California (vs. Hearst Communications, Inc., owner of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Download the PDF here.


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Q&A: Everything you wanted to know, but were too embarrassed to ask, about Shahid Buttar’s Defamation Lawsuit against the San Francisco Chronicle

When people these days think of defamation, they tend to think of Donald Trump’s incessant and empty threats to sue anyone who’s upset his fragile ego. That’s unfortunate, because libel law is an important way to right a wrong. Libel law is especially important when the person being libeled is running for office, when the libeler is part of a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, and when the libel serves to perpetuate racism.

Question #1: Isn’t journalism constitutionally protected free speech?

Let us be clear: The First Amendment is vital to democracy, and we believe strongly in the sanctity of free speech and a free press.

Indeed, the First Amendment even protects a publication’s right to get a story wrong. What it doesn’t protect is the right to let falsehoods stand without correction, especially when those falsehoods are so obviously problematic and consequential. Put simply, when facts emerge that undermine a news outlet’s reporting, that outlet is obligated to correct the record.

The bottom line: This isn’t a case about free speech. It’s a case about press ethics, or lack thereof. What the San Francisco Chronicle did is not only inaccurate; it’s also immoral.

Question #2: To defame a “public figure,” you need to prove one of two things: That the Chronicle “recklessly disregarded the truth,” or that it acted with “malice.” Prove it.

On July 22, 2020, the Chronicle ran an article (in its print edition) under the headline, “Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi’s Election Opponent, Accused of Sex Harassment.” The article was based on a self-published essay, in which Elizabeth Croydon alleged that Shahid had sexually harassed her.

Problem #1: Ms. Croydon is widely known for peddling false accusations.

A few days after the Chronicle article, an open letter appeared in the Independent Political Report. The letter was signed by 17 people — 17! — who vouched for Shahid’s “high ethical standards and behavior.” Here’s an excerpt:

“The accuser [Ms. Croydon] is well known in the D.C. social-justice community. Unfortunately, this troubled individual has a long history of fabricating attacks against innocent people. A review of litigation she has filed in various jurisdictions would likely yield a revealing picture to an enterprising journalist. She has engaged in late-night phone harassment campaigns, false allegations, and physical threats against numerous individuals over the years. She is not a credible witness.”

Did the Chronicle mention any of this? No. Not a word. That’s reckless.

(Want to speak directly with the letter’s signatories? Email us and we can connect you.)

Problem #2: Upon investigating Ms. Croydon’s claims, other news outlets reported that they were deeply questionable.

On July 21 — the same day the Chronicle article appeared online — the Bay Area Report covered the issue. Here’s a key excerpt from the B.A.R. article:

“Two women who knew Buttar in the 2000s told the B.A.R. there was no credibility to what Croydon alleges occurred. Martine Zundmanis … said there is ‘absolutely no merit’ to Croydon’s claims … Dr. Margaret Flowers … said Croydon had falsely accused her partner … of sexual assault in 2006. ‘It is really sad she is given any credibility,’ said Flowers.”

Did the Chronicle mention Martine Zundmanis? No. Surely the paper mentioned Margaret Flowers? Again, no. Their voices were silenced.

Two days later, on July 23, a second publication, the Intercept, picked up the story. Here’s the nut graf: “The Intercept has spoken to several people who recounted having disturbing interactions with Croydon that caused them to question her credibility.”

Sound familiar?

In other words: Even though the Chronicle is bigger and better resourced, it couldn’t be bothered to perform the most basic due diligence. This is Journalism 101: Even if your mother says she loves you, you still need to fact check, seek out a second source, do a simple Google search.

Such recklessness is bad enough with a garden-variety, dog-bites-man story. With a story as explosive and sensitive as sexual harassment — occurring in the middle of a federal election — such recklessness crosses into malice.

It gets worse.

Two months later, the Intercept conducted a follow-up investigation. Its conclusion was even more dispositive: “Croydon’s claims have not been borne out. The Intercept was not able to corroborate Croydon’s allegations.”

These findings prompted the Intercept to update its original article, which it acknowledged through an “editor’s note” placed prominently at the top of the text.

Did the Chronicle issue an editor’s note? Fat chance. Not a single word was ever edited, clarified, or retracted.

Problem #3: The Chronicle ignored requests to comment from those with familiar with Ms. Croydon’s history.

In reporting its article, the Chronicle asked Shahid for a comment. Soon after, at least four people contacted the reporter in question, senior political writer Joe Garofoli. They offered to present the other side of the story — namely, that Ms. Croydon is a serial accuser and that her accusations about Shahid contradicted everything they knew about Shahid.

Did the Chronicle update its article, as the Intercept did? No. Instead, it let defamation fly free. That’s malicious.

The bottom line: The Constitution permits the press wide latitude to cover public figures. But it doesn’t allow the press to spread, let alone weaponize, known fabrications. To print uncorroborated information — and then to refuse to run corrections even when confronted with conflicting evidence — is both reckless and malicious.

Question #3: A few days later, the Chronicle published a follow-up article that quoted Shahid’s defenders. Does this undercut your argument?

No. Far from diminishing the damage caused by the first article, the way the paper handled this second article dug the defamation deeper.

First, those quoted were portrayed not as the free-thinking activists they are, but as Shahid’s friends. That framing is misleading. While these folks know both Ms. Croydon and Shahid, they are fiercely independent.

Second, while the article focused on the aforementioned open letter, the Chronicle never linked to it. To publish a story about something that’s easily and publicly available online without linking to it constitutes journalistic malpractice.

Did the Chronicle give Ms. Croydon’s essay the same no-link treatment? Nope. In both its first and second articles, the paper prominently linked to her essay.

Third, at this point, you’d think that the Chronicle would mention Ms. Croydon’s troubling history. At least give it a sentence. After all, almost 20 people had gone on record that her accusations were “false and ill-intentioned.”

Again, no. Instead, the paper ignored the clear and colossal warning signs.

Question #4: Why didn’t you write a rebuttal?

We did! The paper asked us respond by submitting an op-ed. Within hours, we delivered 750 words, which they rejected.

Their reason? “As a matter of fairness, I’m not sure that one woman’s testimonial of her experience with Buttar necessarily discredits the accuser’s account,” wrote the editorial-page editor.

Got that? It’s perfectly ok to publish several stories about one woman’s accusation, yet it’s unfair to publish one story about another woman’s rebuttal.

Question #5: Did the Chronicle’s reporting affect the election?

Yes. Were it not for the Chronicle’s lies that misled voters, Shahid may well have won the election for California’s 12th congressional district. As Sahar Aziz, a professor at Rutgers University Law School, has observed, the airing of Ms. Croydon’s fictions brought Shahid’s political rise to a screeching halt. “Just as [his] campaign was making significant headway … among America’s burgeoning progressive voter base,” he was brought low by the mainstream media.

Consider the following facts:

  • As the paper of record for Northern California, the Chronicle carries great sway over public opinion, public policy, and elections.
  • The election in question wasn’t a small one; Shahid’s opponent was Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, or the second person in the presidential line of succession.
  • Despite the character assassination, Shahid won 81,000 votes, thus coming closer to unseating Pelosi than any other candidate in her 34-year career.

Question #6: You lost the election eight months ago. Why are you filing a lawsuit now?

There’s a constitutional principle at stake here. Free speech is not unconditional; with great power comes great responsibility. And when Big Media wields that power with impunity, the health of an informed electorate — of our very democracy — is threatened.

Make no mistake: If the press can successfully defame Shahid, a high-profile candidate for federal office, then no one is safe. Especially the everyday citizen whose well-being and rights form the bedrock of Shahid for Change.

A few weeks ago, a volunteer on our campaign, Gloria Berry, published a long essay, with screenshots. Ms. Berry’s conclusion offers an apt answer to the question, “Why now?”: “Shahid deserves an apology. So does the public, which was misled when [the Chronicle] put out false information. The [press] needs to correct the record … and hold their leaders accountable.”

Question #7: Why do you think the Chronicle’s article was racist?

Because the paper treated similar accusations differently. Because it employs double standards.

On one hand, we have Shahid, a person of color and an immigrant who has never held elected office. Last year, Shahid was accused of sexual harassment. This harassment allegedly happened in private 18 years ago. Within hours, the Chronicle published an article reporting on this allegation. Given the publication’s prestige, this article opened the floodgates for other media outlets to follow suit; “if a story is good enough for the paper of record,” the logic goes, “then it’s good enough for us.”

By contrast, consider the case of Aaron Peskin, a former president and now dean of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. Mr. Peskin has also chaired the city’s Democratic Party Central Committee. For two decades, it was widely known that Mr. Peskin was a bully. He verbally berated people in public. This was not an accusation, but a fact. Yet only recently did the media report on his behavior in a serious and sustained way.

Is it a coincidence that Mr. Peskin is a white guy born in Berkeley, while Shahid is a brown Muslim Pakistani American?