Russell Armstrong sent an email to Camille Grammer in the wee hours of one morning last summer. I don’t know the exact wording but I imagine that the gist of it was: Dear Mrs. Grammer, Shut up or I will sue you. Sincerely, Russell Armstrong. This email was one of what we now know were many that resonated from Beverly Hills to NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York.
This wasn’t the only time we had seen Russell use threats of legal action to silence the other families on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. While hosting a dinner at his home, with his wife, he brought out a copy of US magazine with an article about the rumored breakup of his marriage. He tried to find out the source of that article from his dinner guests, Kyle and Mauricio Umansky. He then inferred that he believed the source to be Lisa VanderPump, as she had a friendship with the editor of the magazine. He then went on to tell everyone at the table that his litigators would get the editor to reveal the source.
I think that Russell had used the ploy of lawsuits on occasions in the past, with some success, probably. Lawyers use similar types of correspondence which are sometimes referred to as “lawyer letters”. In effect, it is a request for compliance by the offending party – a sort of “do the right thing” message. Those letters are worded in such a way so that the inference of a lawsuit could be drawn by the recipient, but is never actually stated. Sometimes they work, sometimes they require more work. As for Russell’s message – well, it certainly worked with the ladies and gentlemen of Beverly Hills. They all shut their mouths faster than the back door of Taylor’s and Russell’s limousine at the White Party. What Russell didn’t count on this time, was that there was something bigger on the receiving end of some of these emails and letters – NBC and Bravo. Their missive was simple and succinct – cut it out or you’re both fired.
I couldn’t help but notice that he used the word “litigators” – not “lawyers” when he spoke to Kyle and Mauricio. Russell was no stranger to courtrooms, law offices and civil suits. He had been, and still was, at that moment in time, involved in litigation, not brought by him but against him, his wife, his partners and his business. I don’t think that this was a casual choice of words by Russell, but rather was meant to add gravitas and an undertone of menace.
Not all lawyers are litigators. Many go though entire careers without ever filing suit or going to court. They write wills, plan estates and represent people at house closings. When I was first hired by a law firm , there was a box of business cards atop my desk in my office. Under my name it said “Litigation Associate”. The cards had been designed and worded without any input from me. What I came to learn was that this was not meant to be a title, but rather a statement, determined by the senior partners and office manager, and was meant to imply that we will sue you.
Russell knew that implication and had made up his mind that everybody had to shut up – about him, his marriage and his business. I see people all over the internet, including some of the Housewives, issuing similar warnings. They bandy about terms like libel, slander, defamation and stalking with little clue as to what they mean. I sometimes wish that someone would give these peevish folks the message that even the President of the United States can’t tell us to knock it off, and I’m pretty sure he would like to at times. It just isn’t that easy for a plaintiff to win these types of cases. The one thing that Russell (or any of the other celebs on Twitter) didn’t understand is that all of us can pretty much say what we want, within the boundaries of reason and the truth.
The Supreme Court of the United States has been very protective of and clear about this freedom, often coming down on the unpopular side of controversies. They found in favor of Larry Flynt, the owner and editor of Hustler magazine in an action brought by the Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1988. That decision gave public figures a very steep hill to climb in order to prove that their names and reputations had been tarnished. The Court, in 2011, overturned a decision which had, at first, been favorable to the father of a young Marine killed in Iraq. That case, Snyder v. Phelps, was brought against the Reverend Phelps, his family and the entire crew over at the particularly noxious Westboro Baptist Church – a group best known for making appearances at funerals, mostly military, while carrying signs worded only to cause hurt.
Given that, Russell really didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning any lawsuits on the basis of telling people to shut up. He would have had a hard time proving that what had been said or written was done with malice and a reckless disregard for the truth – requirements for slander and libel. He would have been hard pressed to make claims that his business and/or reputation had been harmed in any way, as his history of questionable businesses practices and false promises to investors was already well documented. The absolute worst problem Russell would have faced was uncovering the source of these rumors. You see, what Russell didn’t know at the time was that he had his own combination of “Deep Throat” and Madame Defarge, living right under his roof.