LOS ANGELES (CN) — Citing a right to free speech, a judge on Wednesday dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by music producer Chris Nelson against singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.
Nelson, who owns a recording studio in Downtown LA, sued Bridgers in 2021 over an Instagram post in which Bridgers accused Nelson of "grooming, stealing, [and] violence." Bridgers filed an anti-SLAPP motion, a legal tactic used to block lawsuits meant to constrain certain protected forms of speech. The judge heard oral arguments for the motion in August and took three months before reaching a decision, despite indicating that he was already leaning in Bridgers' favor.
"It seems it is a matter of public interest" and therefore protected speech, Judge Curtis Kin had said in August. "Phoebe Bridgers is attempting to provide protective consumer information... She's wanting to provide full information to those who are considering working with Mr. Nelson."
He added that he saw no evidence that Bridgers had been lying or acting with a reckless disregard for the truth, one of the things that must be proven in order to succeed with a defamation suit.
"It seems like a he said/she said issue," Kin said. "It’s hard to see, looking at the record, how the plaintiff could show that Ms. Bridgers, when making the post, knew her statements to be false or had serious doubts as to whether they were true."
Nelson's legal team said they would be filing an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
"Ms. Bridgers lied about Mr. Nelson to her followers with full knowledge of that lie, and with the sole intent of harming Mr. Nelson," said Tiffany Hunter, Nelson's lawyer, in a written statement. "Ms. Bridgers’ relentless effort to keep her sworn testimony hidden from the public tells the true story of her hypocrisy and transgressions. If Ms. Bridgers is such a champion for truth, why is she preventing the public from seeing what she actually said under oath?"
Assuming the ruling is upheld, it would bring an end to a lawsuit full of lurid, tabloid-ready details.
“We feel vindicated that the court recognized this lawsuit as frivolous and without merit. It was not grounded in law, or facts, but was filed with the sole intention of causing harm to our client’s reputation and career,” a spokesperson for Bridgers said in a written statement. “This victory is important not just for our client but for all those she was seeking to protect by using her platform.”
In 2018, 27-year-old Bridgers, a Grammy-nominated artist, began having what Nelson's lawsuit would later call "consensual sexual encounters" with Nelson and Nelson's girlfriend at the time, Emily Bannon. Though Bannon has testified that these encounters occurred only a handful of times, the three remained close for more than a year, frequently having dinner together, going to concerts and buying each other gifts.
Bannon and Nelson split in 2019. In 2020, Bannon, who remained friends with Bridgers, posted a long series of Instagram stories (posts that disappear after 24 hours) accusing Nelson of a wide range of abuse and violent crime, including murder, assault and robbery. She said Nelson had once claimed to have beaten "a young Latinx man to death with a baseball bat after provoking him with a racial slur." She also accused him of defrauding her neighbor out of more than $100,000, and of having borrowed $12,000 from her and not repaying it.
Bridgers later posted her own Instagram story in support of Bannon in which she wrote: "I witnessed and can personally verify much of the abuse (grooming, stealing, violence) perpetuated by Chris Nelson, owner of a studio called Sound Space.” She added: “For anyone who knows Chris Nelson, is considering working with him, or wants to know more, there is an articulate and mind blowing account on @emilybannon’s page as a highlight. TRIGGER WARNING for basically everything triggering.”
In his civil complaint, Nelson said that the post devastated his businesses and that "musicians and artists removed [his] name from their projects and stripped [Nelson] of credits that he had obtained in producing their music."
Nelson also sued Bannon and another woman, Noël Wells, who had made her own Instagram posts castigating Nelson. Those two women also filed anti-SLAPP motions. Wells was successful in hers, but Bannon's was not. The judge in Bannon's case wrote, in his decision, that Bannon "made the statements on which the complaint is based, not as a part of a larger discussion relating to consumer protection, the #MeToo movement, or other issues of public interest, but to air grievances with plaintiff. This is not a matter of public interest." The suit against Bannon is still pending.
In the August hearing, Nelson's lawyer, Bradford Hughes, called the Instagram stories posted by Bridgers and Bannon a "set-up by two spiteful individuals" who were "upset about end of a romantic relationship." He said that even though Bridgers and Bannon were told of Nelson's supposed criminal history, they didn't say anything until well after their three-way relationship fell apart — until, Hughes said, Nelson got a new girlfriend.
"After that, Emily Bannon says to Phoebe Bridgers, 'I want to take this guy down,'" Hughes said.
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