(CN) — Singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday to ask a judge to block a lawsuit filed against her by Chris Nelson, a music producer who alleged that Bridgers defamed him in an Instagram post.
Nelson, who owns a Downtown LA recording studio and is a collector and dealer of vintage musical instruments, sued Bridgers in September 2021. Bridgers filed a motion to strike the lawsuit on anti-SLAPP grounds, a legal tactic available in California and other states to block lawsuits meant to constrict the right to certain forms of protected free speech.
On Thursday, Judge Curtis Kin said he was leaning toward granting the motion to block Nelson's lawsuit.
"It seems like a he said/she said issue," said Kin. "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."
Nevertheless, the judge did not rule on the matter or on a separate motion to make public Bridgers' deposition, which is currently sealed.
Bridgers, 27, has been nominated for four Grammy awards and has performed on Saturday Night Live. She is also known for dating musician Ryan Adams, and for accusing him of emotional abuse. She later spoke out in support of women accusing musician Marilyn Manson of sexual abuse.
Beginning in 2018, Bridgers, Nelson and Nelson's then-girlfriend Emily Bannon began having what Nelson would later refer to in his lawsuit as "consensual sexual encounters." Bannon has testified that these encounters only happened a handful of times. Bannon and Nelson broke up in 2019.
In 2020, Bannon posted a long series of Instagram stories (social media posts that disappear after 24 hours) accusing Nelson of a wide range of crimes and immoral conduct, including murder, physical violence, robbery and emotional abuse. Among other things, she claimed Nelson owed her $12,000; that he'd defrauded her neighbor out of more than $100,000; and that he'd claimed to have beaten "a young Latinx man to death with a baseball bat after provoking him with a racial slur."
Bridgers, in her own Instagram story, expressed support for Bannon, writing, "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.” Bridgers, at the time, had around half a million followers on the photo-sharing platform.
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 has also sued Bannon and another woman, Noël Wells, for defamation.
In order to win a defamation suit, the plaintiff typically has to prove that the defendant lied or acted with a reckless disregard for the truth. Bridgers has defended her statement as true — that is, she says (according to court documents referring to her sealed deposition) that Nelson told her about having beaten someone to death with a baseball bat and having stolen $30,000 worth of musical equipment and burying it in the desert to hide it from law enforcement.
Nelson's lawyer, Bradford Hughes, called the Instagram stories posted by Bridgers and Bannon a "set-up up by two spiteful individuals... 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.
Hughes claimed that text messages showed the two conspired on the Instagram stories. Bridgers has denied that. Hughes said that in her deposition, Bridgers admitted to never having personally witnessed Nelson stealing, committing violence or "grooming" (a word which Bridgers uses somewhat differently than does law enforcement, or most other people), despite her Instagram post saying that she "witnessed... much of the abuse."
Bridgers' attorney Michael Strub said Bridgers was simply repeating what Nelson had told her.
"The plaintiff told her he killed someone with a baseball bat," Strub said. "This is sufficient to show that Ms. Bridgers, when she made her Instagram post, didn’t believe it was false."
He also defended the delay in reporting Nelson's behavior.
"When you’re in this situation, you don’t necessarily realize the extent of the abuse that you’re seeing," Strub said. "It sort of stacks up on you."
Judge Kin said he was inclined to grant the anti-SLAPP motion, and suggested that Bridgers' posts were a matter of public interest, and therefore protected speech.
"It seems it is a matter of public interest," Kin said. "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."
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