The studio owner suing Phoebe Bridgers with claims she defamed him on social media can force her to sit for a deposition about whether she acted with “actual malice,” a judge ruled this week. The decision comes after the singer-songwriter fought the in-person examination, calling it “nothing more than thinly veiled harassment.”
In his ruling favoring plaintiff Chris Nelson, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis A. Kin said the court can’t decide Bridgers’ pending request to strike the libel lawsuit on free-speech grounds until Nelson has an opportunity to grill her over his allegation she intentionally, or recklessly, published “false and misleading statements” about him in an October 2020 Instagram post.
Nelson alleges Bridgers posted the disputed information about him – namely that she witnessed him engage in “grooming, stealing, violence” – because she was involved in a “sexual relationship” with his ex-girlfriend Emily Bannon and was “part of a vendetta to destroy [his] reputation.”
In her motion to strike Nelson’s complaint, Bridgers argues that the Sound Space recording studio owner can’t meet his burden of showing “actual malice,” meaning he can’t prove she published the “challenged statements with knowledge of their falsity or while entertaining serious doubts as to their truth,” so his complaint must be dismissed. Bridgers has denied any malice in a sworn statement to the court, saying she believed, and still believes, that her statements were true.
In his ruling granting the deposition request, Judge Kin called the inquiry into “actual malice” a “subjective test,” where the “crucial issue” would be Bridgers’ “actual belief concerning the truthfulness of the publication.”
The judge said Bridgers is “necessarily the primary, if not sole, source of evidence regarding actual malice,” adding that the examination must take place by April 29.
In her 2020 Instagram story at the center of the lawsuit, Bridgers voiced support for Bannon as she directed her followers to an Instagram post published by Bannon titled, “I stand in Solidarity with those coming forward with allegations against Chris Nelson.” The Bannon thread accused Nelson of fraud, theft, and violence.
“I witnessed and can personally verify much of the abuse (grooming, stealing, violence) perpetuated by Chris Nelson, owner of a studio called Sound Space,” Bridgers’ post, which Nelson claims was live on her Instagram account for 24 hours, read. “For anyone who knows [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.”
Nelson filed his lawsuit against Bridgers on Sept. 28. He previously sued Bannon for defamation in December 2020. In response filings, Bannon has stated she lived with Nelson during their year-long relationship and “began to see certain behaviors that disturbed me.” She said the behaviors caused her to end the relationship. Then, in mid-2020, she was “approached by or put in touch with a diverse range of individuals” who also knew Nelson, she has claimed. “Several discussions involved Nelson’s abusive and/or criminal behavior and how similar it was from person to person,” she previously wrote in a sworn declaration.
Bannon, who is now counter-suing Nelson with a breach of contract claim related to an alleged business deal, said she posted her Instagram story “so that future customers of his would be on notice.” Their legal battle has a tentative trial date set for next year.
In another lawsuit filed in December 2020, Nelson accused former Saturday Night Live actress and singer-songwriter Noël Wells of making “false, defamatory, and misleading” comments when she allegedly warned indie rock band Big Thief against working with him in July 2020.
A judge tossed that case after Wells argued she sent her cautionary email to Big Thief’s manager in a protected effort to “assist” the band with its right to hire — or not hire — someone in the furtherance of artistic free speech.