John P. Coale is known for suing tobacco companies—he helped obtain a $368 billion settlement in the 1990s. The personal injury litigator has also targeted gun manufacturers in court.
Now he’s come out of retirement to take a free speech case against his biggest titans yet— Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.'s Google. His client? One Donald J. Trump.
“The woke stuff has moved me to the right,” Coale said in an interview. “A lot of people hate Trump, but that’s not what the case is about. The case is about whether these companies can do what they’ve been doing.”
Coale, the 74-year-old husband of former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, isn’t an obvious choice for the job of aiding Trump in the former president’s longshot lawsuits.
He says he’s never voted for Trump, and his past campaign giving shows him backing Democrats and Republicans. Nor has he been practicing much. Coale’s most recent federal case was a 2005 personal injury lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Inc., according to a Bloomberg Law dockets search.
But stepping out of retirement to take on a major free speech case was more than he could pass up. He cited his experience in tobacco litigation that he said similarly spanned legal, political, and media boundaries.
“I see this as a First Amendment case, period,” Coale told Bloomberg Law.
The three class action lawsuits filed in July against Twitter, Facebook, and Google and their executives argue that Big Tech has inappropriately censored the former president by booting him from social media platforms in violation of the First Amendment.
The lawsuits also seek to strike down Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields social media companies from liability for content that users post on their sites.
Coale said Section 230, which was passed before Big Tech became the giants they are today, gives social media companies legal cover and encourages them to censor individuals such as Trump.
At the same time, the companies have become a tool for government, he said. Congress has “browbeaten” them with antitrust threats and talk of stripping them of legal immunity, while the Biden administration recently acknowledged working with at least one company to combat misinformation around Covid-19.
Legal scholars have called the cases “frivolous” because the companies are private entities, not subject to the First Amendment.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a Constitutional law scholar and dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, said the White House’s partnership with social media companies isn’t unlawful.
“The Constitution applies to the government, not to private entities,” Chemerinsky said in an email. “Working with the government is not enough to require that the private actor comply with the Constitution. The law is absolutely clear about this.”
Coale said his involvement in the cases started with a December 2020 conversation with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) over drinks at The Monocle Restaurant in Washington. Coale said they discussed the power of social media platforms, which Coale said was “wrong.”
“I told (Graham) what I thought,” Coale said. “Some time later, he called me, and he said, ‘I’ve got a client for you.’”
Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The senator is not formally involved in the cases, according to Coale.
Coale picked John Q. Kelly, a Connecticut litigator known for successfully representing the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in a wrongful death case against O.J. Simpson, and former Florida lawmaker Carlos Trujillo to join him on the Trump case.
Michael Jones of Ivey, Barnum & O’Mara and Andrew Vargas, Louis Gonzalez, Michael Baldwin, and Rene Delombard of Vargas Gonzalez Baldwin Delombard are also on the team.
The lawyers are working on a contingency basis and largely paying for day-to-day expenses themselves, Coale said.
“It seems like every Republican organization is raising money off this case,” Coale said. “We haven’t done that. We’re not getting any of that.”
No ‘Country Club’ Sympathy
Coale took on Trump as a client as several large law firms have looked to distance themselves from the former president and his administration following the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
Lawyers in the Trump administration have faced a slower revolving door since Trump left office. Firms like Foley & Lardner, Barnes & Thornburg, Seyfarth Shaw, and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius have parted ways with lawyers who worked on Trump’s 2020 election lawsuits or dropped Trump’s businesses from their client lists.
Coale said those lawyers aren’t distinguishing themselves.
“Your duty is to represent a client, whether the client’s a murderer or an aggrieved person in a whiplash case,” he said. “That’s your job. If you’re too chicken s--- to take on the case because somebody at the country club might go ‘boohoo,’ I have no sympathy for you.”
Coale said he’s currently “a little bit right of center” politically, though his campaign donations and political involvement has spanned the political spectrum.
Last year, Coale donated $2,800 to Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), and in 2015 he gave $30,000 to Democratic PAC Generation Forward, according to Federal Election Commission records.
He has also given thousands to conservative organizations, including $20,000 to the Maryland Republican State Central Committee in 2018. Coale said he also worked with the late Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Coale said he helped on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—Coale calls himself a “friend” of the Clintons—and voted for her in 2016.
He said he didn’t vote in the 2020 presidential election. He felt his ballot would be diluted because voters in D.C. tend to heavily favor Democratic candidates and were sure to go for President Joe Biden, Coale said, and he didn’t know who he would have voted for.
The Biden administration sees nothing nefarious in partnering with the social media companies. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a July briefing said the administration was working to reduce misinformation about Covid-19 on social media platforms such as Facebook.
“We’ve increased disinformation research and tracking within the Surgeon General’s office,” Psaki said in the briefing. “We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.”
The administration is also working with prominent doctors, healthcare professionals, and social media influencers to promote accurate information about Covid-19, she said.
Coale said the White House’s partnership with social media platforms is a First Amendment violation. “You can’t get others to do what you can’t do yourself,” he said.
The Supreme Court will ultimately need to decide the dispute, he said.
“The real basis of free speech is who decides what is free speech,” Coale said. “For 100, 200 years, the Supreme Court has done a very good job at that. You can’t have algorithms, you can’t have people in Silicon Valley, deciding what is free speech.”