Taylor Swift has never gotten the credit she deserves for her savvy and sensitivity to important legal issues, including her decision to stand up to a bogus defamation lawsuit filed against her by a man who groped her. She is also a generational icon who is adored in my household in particular. Both of those things make her now repeated threats to file what are known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — commonly called “SLAPP suits” — against comparatively powerless people so much more disappointing.
The most recent threat, first reported by The Washington Post, was sent by Swift’s lawyers at Venable LLP to college student Jack Sweeney. Sweeney is an irritator of billionaires whose schtick is posting publicly available information through social media accounts that track the private jet use of some of the world’s richest people, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian and Swift. Sweeney first came to prominence after Musk accused him of publishing “basically assassination coordinates” through Sweeney’s social media account “ElonJet” and then threatened to sue him over the matter. Now, Sweeney is in Swift’s crosshairs for the same reason.
Swift’s worries are understandable. Sweeney’s information has been used to track her many private flights — including documenting her trips between shows on her ongoing “Eras Tour” and the NFL games of her romantic partner, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Given her fame and celebrity, Swift has constant security concerns, including threats from stalkers and others who may wish to do her harm. Given that context, it is hard not to empathize with Swift’s desire to keep the details of her private jet use private.
What is more difficult to stomach is Swift’s baseless threat to sue Sweeney over the matter. The U.S. Supreme Court has held unambiguously that “the creation and dissemination of information are speech for First Amendment purposes.” “Facts, after all, are the beginning point for much of the speech that is most essential to advance human knowledge and to conduct human affairs,” the decision explains. As a result, there is virtually no circumstance in which a person may lawfully be prohibited from publishing publicly available, truthful information, especially on matters of public concern.
To be sure, exercising the right to disseminate truthful information often upsets people. One famous Supreme Court case involved a racial-panic profiteer who sued — ultimately unsuccessfully — to stop protesters from distributing leaflets that asked recipients to call him “at his home phone number” and ask him to change his unscrupulous business practices. A more recent example involves the Internet Movie Database, better known as IMDb, prevailing against an actors union-supported law that prohibited websites from publishing actors’ ages. “We find nothing illegal about truthful, fact-based publication of an individual’s age and birthdate when that information was lawfully obtained,” a unanimous Ninth Circuit panel explained in its opinion invalidating the law. Just weeks ago, in Swift’s home state of Tennessee, two citizens who published their elected officials’ cellphone numbers as part of local government petitioning campaigns prevailed against a SLAPP suit filed against them by their elected representatives on essentially the same basis.
Sweeney also has his reasons for publishing the information he does. And like them or not, he is right that reporting the private jet use of celebrities and billionaires is a matter of public concern. That is especially true when the same celebrities claim to be concerned about climate change, something Swift herself professed in a 2020 interview. Notably, that was also before a 2022 report on the environmental cost of celebrity private jet use — which used data drawn from the Sweeney social media account @CelebJetsc— named Swift the “biggest celebrity CO2e polluter this year so far,” generating newsworthy reporting from The Washington Post and other mainstream outlets. Swift has since countered criticism of her environmental impact — most recently, criticism concerning her repeated use of her jet to visit Kelce — by insisting that she “purchased more than double the carbon credits needed to offset all tour travel.”
Put another way: Sweeney is not only enabling but driving an important public discussion about the environmental impact of celebrity private jet use through his billionaire-upsetting social media accounts. That information may be uncomfortable and even alarming for its targets. It remains firmly protected by the First Amendment, though, even in the face of competing claims that it is emotionally distressing. Further, to the extent that Swift’s concerns are authentically just security-based, her real complaint is not with Sweeney, but with the public nature of the information that he disseminates.
Were this a one-off incident, it could perhaps be explained as an aberration. But it isn’t. In 2017, Swift’s lawyers from the same firm issued an utterly meritless defamation threat against an unknown blogger for expressing an offensive opinion about her. The incident sparked justifiable outrage and a cutting rebuke from the ACLU. Now having baselessly threatened Sweeney for his transparently protected speech as well, Swift appears committed to playing the anti-hero again.