What Taylor Swift's Legal Team Teaches Us About Their Failure to Choose a Battle
This week the ACLU of Northern California issued Taylor Swift’s legal team at Venable LLP a snarky and very public lesson in the First Amendment.
On Sept. 5, following Swift’s Aug. 24 release of her new album’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” PopFront editor Meghan Herning published a post titled Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation. Herning makes the claim that the lyrics to Swift’s single are littered with dog whistles to quiet supporters of white supremacy. “The song ‘Look What you made [sic] Me Do’ evidently speaks to the lower case kkk; and they have embraced it,” she wrote.
According to its website, PopFront is “an online magazine about politics, culture and activism, proudly centered in the Left Coast.” It currently has less than 200 Twitter followers and just over 1.1 thousand page likes on Facebook.
Despite PopFront’s rather small reach and following, on Oct. 25, Swift’s legal team confronted Herning with a letter demanding a retraction for what they called a “false and defamatory story.” The letter elaborates by denying that the pop star supports white supremacy or the alt-right.
“The notion that Ms. Swift supports white supremacy is utterly fabricated and a reprehensible falsehood, and it attempts to portray Ms. Swift in a false light. Let this letter stand as a yet another unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the alt-right. Moreover, Ms. Swift has not remained silent regarding this issue, and she has made clear that she does not approve of any association with such repugnant groups or their beliefs. Contrary to the statements in this story, Ms. Swift has repeatedly and consistently denounced white supremacy when she has faced these disgusting accusations, including by denouncing these vile lies when other publications have repeated them.”
The letter concludes with an apparent attempt to keep it from going public.
“This is a confidential legal notice and is not for publication. Any publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of this letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of Copyright Act. You are not authorized to publish this letter in whole or in part absent our express written authorization.”
Rather than complying with Venable LLP’s demand for a retraction, Herning connected with the ACLU of Northern California. On Nov. 6, the ACLU of Northern California published Venable LLP’s letter online along with their response to it, which snarkily incorporates the singer’s song titles to educate Swift and her legal team on free speech and free press:
“Criticism is never pleasant, but a celebrity has to shake it off, even if the critique may damage her reputation.”
“Applying these fundamental constitutional principles to your four 'hideous falsehoods' shows that not even in your wildest dreams can they constitute defamation.”
The response concludes by rejecting Swift’s legal team’s attempt to keep their original letter from going public. “Finally, the ominous paragraph at the end of your letter…is utter nonsense,” it asserts. “In short, you may no more use copyright law to hide the contents of your letter from public scrutiny than a kidnapper could use it to prevent his victim’s family from giving a copy of the ransom note to the police.”
As can be the case when the ACLU gets involved, the matter gained attention from several national news outlets including NPR, USA Today and Bloomberg. What began as an opinion piece on a niche blog turned into a PR mess for Swift just days before the Nov. 10 release of her sixth album, ironically titled Reputation.
The lesson here is that national brands and public figures need to choose their battles, especially when dealing with online critics.
Regardless of the final legal outcome, Swift’s attorneys, in a failed attempt to squash an old unflattering blog post, ultimately put a national spotlight on it.
How to Be More Creative, Innovative and Confident
Over the years, I’ve coached senior executives, led workshops for leaders at all levels and most recently ran a leadership program for 5th graders at a local primary school. While the complexity of their lives and responsibilities varied widely, some of the core issues that emerged were common.
Everyone was a little afraid that they were doing “it” wrong and would be caught. Each one held back on how far they’d unleash their creativity. All also desperatelywanted a pat on the back when they did it right and stayed within the known parameters for success.
In one of my early workshop sessions at the primary school, child after child came up to me and asked for a new piece of paper for their notes. They messed up, wrote too big, or drew a diagram that took up too much space. In general, their paper didn’t look the example I held up in front of the classroom.
I told them it looked fine to me and encouraged them to use all the space, write around the edges; make it meaningful to them, not me. They seemed unsure, and some of them sneaked clean sheets when they thought I wasn’t looking.
At the beginning of the next week’s lesson, I started with five words that changed everything.
“You can’t do it wrong.”
I repeated myself and walked around the room.
I looked each child in the eye.
“You can’t do it wrong.”
That lesson, I saw some of the most creative output from the group than I’d seen in weeks.
I’ll bet you feel the weight of doing it wrong. People depend on you, look up to you and need you to be right.
The thing is, when you feel that constant pressure to be right, you start to play small. You can’t take big chances when being right is the goal and the only measure of success.
When you’re creative and innovative, and at your best, there is no wrong. It’s all new, all unexplored and all an adventure. In this place, this mindset, every flop is information, not failure.
When I was an actress, I had auditions where I tried to be the character that I thought the director was looking for, yet didn’t get cast time and time again. When I finally made bold choices that felt uncomfortable and crazy, there were times I still didn’t get cast, but then I finally did time and time again.
Maybe my early auditions were wrong, and I got a pass, but they were also right because they led me to let go. Without those wrong turns, I would never have unleashed all that was within me.
Your turn. Ready to be more creative, innovative and confident? Start here.
Tonight, when you’re alone in the bathroom after you’ve brushed your teeth, look at yourself in the mirror and speak these five words aloud:
“You can’t do it wrong.”
If you want five more, try:
“I know what to do.”
“I can figure it out.”
“I am creative and resourceful.”
“I won’t hold back now.”
Don’t feel silly. You’re the only person in the room. After all, there is no instructor in the front of the room looking you in the eye and telling you what you need to hear.
We all want to be successful, and we all want to get it right. What’s wrong with being wrong? Every wrong turn takes you closer to finding your way to where you’re meant to go.
Break the Frame Action:
If you know someone who needs to hear these five words, tell them. Do it today or tomorrow at the latest. Whatever you do, don’t wait. Maybe they’re on your team, your child or best friend. We can all benefit from someone looking us in the eye to remind us of the lesson too quickly forgotten.
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