Crime & Courts

Charlotte lawsuit pits reality TV feud vs. freedom of speech

TV reality-show star Joe Teti has sued a rival and others who accuse him of lying about his military record.
TV reality-show star Joe Teti has sued a rival and others who accuse him of lying about his military record.

A bitter legal fight between rival reality-show TV stars has veered into First Amendment grounds, with a Charlotte-area judge expected to ban future Facebook postings attacking a man’s military record until after the trial of his lawsuit ends.

Joe Teti is co-host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survival” reality show. He sued his former friend and mentor, Mykel Hawkeye, the co-star of Discovery’s former show, “Man, Woman, Wild.”

Teti claims that Hawke and others repeatedly have defamed him in orchestrated online attacks. He says the allegations, which have appeared on Facebook and other websites, have cost him lucrative corporate sponsorships and damaged his reputation. Claims that he has lied about his Special Forces military record and exaggerated his exploits in Iran and Afghanistan are untrue, his attorney has said.

The legal complaint of Teti, who public records indicate was living in Stanly County in 2013, was filed in Mecklenburg County late last year. Last week, a judge agreed to move the case to Fayetteville – saying it was a more proper site for the trial.

By then, the case had taken on broad free speech implications. On March 26, Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell of Gaston County agreed in principle to Teti’s request that Hawkeye (who goes by Hawke professionally) and another defendant be banned from publicizing “any false and defamatory communications” about Teti until the case is resolved.

Caldwell’s proposed order would extend to Facebook, other websites “and any media outlet of any kind.”

An assistant to Caldwell said Monday that the judge could not comment on an existing legal matter.

However, First Amendment legal experts say the injunction, if signed, would violate decades of court precedent protecting free speech. They say a temporary restraining order in the case signed by Superior Court Judge Greg Hayes of Hickory, which Caldwell’s order would replace, also violated constitutional protections.

“The normal remedy in defamation cases is a post-publication lawsuit, not a pre-publication injunction,” said UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Bill Marshall, who specializes in First Amendment law.

During last month’s hearing on the injunction, Caldwell talked about finding “a balance” between the constitutional protection of speech and the potential damage to Teti, said Hugh Stevens, the attorney for defendant Monique Haina and the longtime legal counsel for the N.C. Press Association. (The lawsuit accuses Haina of posting defamatory statements against Teti on numerous websites.)

When the judge asked to hear Stevens’ thoughts about the injunction, the lawyer said he told Caldwell “that any ‘prior restraint’ on free speech ... is unconstitutional.”

Teti already has an alternative path, Stevens said: Take his accusers to court, “which he is already doing.”

Facebook and ‘Military Phonies’

According to the lawsuit, Teti and Hawkeye met in the Special Forces with Hawkeye as Teti’s commander and mentor. Their friendship ended when Teti agreed to appear on “Dual Survivor” in 2012. By that time, Hawkeye and his wife were the stars of their own TV show on Discovery, which ran from 2010-2012.

Both shows had similar themes. In “Dual Survival,” Teti and another survival expert are placed in challenging environments. In episodes of “Man, Woman, Wild,” Hawkeye and his wife had to endure half weeks on their own with few provisions.

Teti claims that Hawkeye, jealous of Teti’s television career, orchestrated attacks on Teti’s military record and character across dozens of Facebook pages and on other military and Special Forces websites. They include claims that Teti lied about his military record for financial gain, threatened and stalked Hawkeye and his family, and that Teti “would resort to arson, planting bombs in residences, harming women, children and animals.”

Haina, who lives in Beaufort County, S.C., is accused in the suit of posting “dozens if not hundreds of false and defamatory statements (about Teti) on Facebook and other websites.”

Allegations of so-called “Stolen Valor” long have been emotional issues among veterans groups. Teti, a former Marine who says he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a military contractor, was expelled from the Special Forces Association in Fayetteville last fall, according to earlier reports. He has also been pilloried on the “Military Phonies” website and was added to the “Wall of Shame” on the Facebook page, “Special Forces Poser Patrol.”

According to published reports, Teti wants more than $1 million in damages. David Redding, his Charlotte attorney, declined comment beyond what’s contained in the complaint. In his request for the injunction, Redding argued that the defendants’ “unlawful conduct” will continue to cause his client “irreparable and immediate harm.”

Charlotte attorney Jon Buchan, a First Amendment specialist who represents the Observer, said the implications of Caldwell’s possible order go far beyond who said what and why.

“Court orders prohibiting the publication of allegedly false and defamatory speech are virtually unheard of because of the First Amendment’s stringent protection of the right to speak,” he said.

To put an injunction in place banning speech before any defamation has been proven in court, Buchan said, “would seem to put the cart before the horse.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095