Of Weaver vs. Millsapsdecided Wednesday by the Georgia Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Justice C. Andrew Fuller, joined by Justices Anne Elizabeth Barnes and Benjamin Land:
After Michael Weaver and others acting at her behest posted negative reviews on Google about Valerie Millsaps’ frame store business, she posted a response, calling Weaver a neo-Nazi and a known criminal who was targeting her business and had “threatened to kill other members of the store.” …
Millsaps and her husband own a framing shop in Cartersville. One day in June 2022, while Millsaps was driving her company van, she saw Weaver standing in the street with a sign that appeared anti-Semitic. Millsaps “showed (her) middle finger” to Weaver. Weaver, after seeing the company logo on the truck, posted a post on her personal blog asking her followers to leave negative reviews for the company on Google. Within 12 hours, several negative reviews appeared on the company’s Google reviews page. Weaver later thanked her fans for leaving reviews and declared, “I’m getting hot! … Total war!”
In response, Millsaps posted his own comment on his company’s Google review page:
My business is being attacked by a neo-Nazi and a member of the KKK. Please ignore the reviews. None of those profiles have ever entered my store. Michael (Weaver) is harassing and intimidating me. A known hate crime offender. He has addressed many businesses in our city. I refuse to be intimidated by him and the hate literature of his that he has left in my store and in my home. He has threatened to kill other members of the store and flooded their Google reviews with harassing and fake reviews. You can decide to try my store and let my experience do the talking. Please note that all date stamps are in a concentrated time period. I choose LOVE over HATE. Thanks for your kindness.
According to Millsaps, the frame store’s Google rating plummeted due to negative reviews left by Weaver and his followers, and the store’s business declined.
Weaver sued Millsaps for defamation, alleging that she had made deliberately false statements about his criminal record, his affiliation with the KKK, and his “terrorist threats to his clients.” Millsaps moved to dismiss the complaint…, arguing, among other things, that her statements were truthful and protected speech made without actual malice.
In support of the motion, Millsaps filed his own affidavit, along with a verified answer and counterclaim, claiming that Weaver is a member of the National Neo-Nazi Alliance, which advocates for “new societies throughout the white world that are based on Aryan values.” and are compatible with the Aryan nature(,)” and the World Church of the Creator, whose founder calls for a “total war against the Jews and the rest of the damned clay races of the world(.)”. Additionally, Weaver co-founded a white supremacist group working to make the United States a “Eurocentric Christian nation.” Millsaps presented evidence that Weaver advertises these affiliations to journalists, on social media and on his personal blog.
Millsaps claimed that, prior to her personal encounter with Weaver, she was familiar with him, his white supremacist affiliations, and his distribution of anti-Semitic literature in Cartersville. She knew Weaver “had a history of violent behavior,” including a previous conviction for aggravated assault for pepper spraying a black man she encountered on the street. See generally Weaver v. State (Ga. App. 2013) (affirming the trial court’s denial of Weaver’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea). Millsaps also pointed to news articles showing that, on another occasion, Weaver got into a “strong verbal dispute” with a man who was removing his fliers and followed him with a Taser; and that Weaver received a criminal trespass warning after a Cartersville business owner complained that he was placing flyers on cars in the parking lot.
Millsaps had also heard that Weaver had attacked other Cartersville businesses, including a gym that had him expelled for posting anti-Semitic leaflets inside. According to Millsaps’ verified response, Weaver and his associates left thousands of negative Google reviews for the gym, vandalized the facility, and made repeated harassing phone calls, including one in which the caller threatened to kill the gym’s owner, which prompted the owner to call the police.
Weaver submitted a verified response to Millsaps’ submissions, admitting that he had engaged in a “review bombing” on his company’s Google page, but denying that he had personally threatened to kill anyone, that he was a member of the KKK, or that he had been convicted of a hate crime.
The court concluded that Millsaps’ post was a matter of public interest and therefore subject to the special procedural protections offered by Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute: “Weaver admits on appeal that he is ‘a public figure,'” and it is indisputable that Millsaps’s posting of the disputed comments were made in response to a ‘war’ that Weaver started in a public forum.” And the court concluded that Weaver had no reasonable chance of prevailing on the merits:
Although Weaver challenged multiple parts of Millsaps’ position in the trial court, on appeal he focuses solely on his statement that he “threatened to kill other members of the store.” Weaver claims this claim is false because he never threatened to kill anyone, much less multiple people. However, in determining whether Millsaps acted with actual malice, the issue is not whether Weaver actually made the threat, but whether Millsaps knew when he made his post that he had not made (or probably had not made) the threat.
Millsaps claimed that he made his post on Google to protect his business and believed the information contained in the post to be true. As noted, Millsaps was aware of Weaver’s membership in organizations advocating race wars and his history of violent criminal behavior. Millsaps had also heard that Weaver had threatened to kill the owner of a local gym after the owner kicked him out of the gym. Although Weaver denies personally making such a threat, he has not denied instigating a campaign of harassment against the gym that included negative reviews, vandalism and repeated phone calls, and he has not proven that no death threats were made. Accordingly, there is no evidence that Millsaps knew that his statement about the death threat was false or probably false.
Weaver also contends that Millsaps acted recklessly because his statement “says ‘members of the store’. Plural. And it does not specify who was threatened, but rather… allows the reader to come to different conclusions about who was threatened and how many people.” But “defamation law ignores minor inaccuracies and focuses on the substantial truth.” Furthermore, “rhetorical hyperbole…cannot form the basis of a defamation claim.”
In this case, Millsaps’ use of the plural may have been factually inaccurate, as he presented evidence only of a death threat. But this inaccuracy or hyperbole does not get to the bottom of his comments and does not prove true malice. Because there was no evidence, much less clear and convincing evidence, that Millsaps knew that his statement was false, or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, the trial court did not err in concluding that Weaver probably did not would prevail in his claim. It follows that the court did not err in granting Millsaps’ motion to dismiss.
In light of this conclusion, we do not address the trial court’s other basis for concluding that Weaver would not prevail: that Millsaps’ statements were true.
Thomas MacIver Clyde and Jeffrey Howard Fisher represent Millsaps.