Click here to see the entire series: The Bar Trial of Jack Thompson...
It's fair to say that Miami attorney Jack Thompson is an iconic figure among the video game community, although not in any happy sense.
Since immersing himself in the game violence debate in the late 1990's, he has become the embodiment of what many gamers perceive as a lack of acceptance by non-gaming society and the mainstream media. In some ways, he seems to relish the role.
Thompson's frequent television appearances, during which he typically blames violent video games for all sorts of mayhem, have positioned him as the go-to guy when the media (primarily Fox News, of late) needs a sound bite lamenting the havoc which video games are supposedly wreaking on modern youth.
No other critic, no other watchdog, has ever come close to Thompson's recognition factor. There are gamer-created songs about the guy. Cartoons, too, as well as video skits, t-shirts, toilet paper, website parodies and Photoshop contests.
To be fair, though, Thompson works at it. His media appearances, his propensity for acid-tongued verbal attacks, his lawsuits, threats of lawsuits and incessant e-mails containing Urgent! alerts make him difficult to ignore.
So when Jack Thompson is placed on trial for professional misconduct charges by the Florida Bar, that's a big story for gamers. The stakes are obviously high for Thompson as well. Even though he has vowed to fight on if disbarred, his credibility will take an undeniable hit. Will Fox News still want a de-licensed attorney as their go-to guy? That's hard to say, but for Thompson, disbarment certainly can't be a positive outcome in any sense.
There is probably no other news outlet, gaming or otherwise, which has covered Thompson as much as GamePolitics in the three years since this site was launched. That certainly wasn't by design. But Thompson is a newsmaker in precisely the arena upon which GamePolitics focuses. And GP has a commitment to covering the news whenever, as our slogan goes, politics and video games collide.
So Thompson inevitably gets covered, sometimes to the frustration of readers. Nor has the relationship between Thompson, GamePolitics, and its readers been an especially agreeable one over the years. But when he makes GP's kind of news, we write about it. Thompson apparently appreciates - or at least covets - the coverage. He still sends us those Urgent! news releases and (as recently as yesterday) chides GP when we don't report on certain of his activities.
So, covering his Florida Bar trial was something that I considered a must for GamePolitics. Regrettably, personal circumstances precluded me from traveling to Miami for the trial, which was my original hope. As it turned out, that was probably a good thing. Although the proceedings were expected to last about a week, they ran for nearly two.
While not being able to cover the trial in person was a disappointment, I was pleased to find that at least we hadn't been scooped. There was no other coverage to speak of. The mainstream media in South Florida seemed oblivious. Fox News? Nada...
So I began to work on the next best thing to being there - acquiring transcripts of trial testimony. A call to Judge Dava Tunis' office got me the contact info for the court reporter assigned to the case. I called the reporter midway through the trial's first week. She was an extremely nice woman, although perhaps a bit surprised to hear from me. But she promised to check with Judge Tunis as to the propriety of my request and was as good as her word. Judge Tunis saw no problem with GamePolitics acquiring the transcripts (they are, after all, a matter of public record) and Thompson was made aware that I was seeking the testimony.
But court reporters make their living in part by providing transcripts for a fee. After a discussion of price, I calculated that it was cost-effective to purchase transcripts of just two of the witnesses against Thompson. While there were five whose Bar issues with Thompson originated from video game cases, I opted for Alabama attorney Clatus Junkin and Alabama Judge James Moore.
Among all of the witnesses, Moore was the one who held the most interest. He oversaw Thompson's high profile Strickland vs. Sony "GTA Killer" suit in Fayette, Alabama and was the jurist who threw Thompson off the case by revoking his pro hac vice (visiting) license to practice law in Alabama. Moore's testimony, however, was very long, stretching over two days. Trying to stay within the budget I had established, I also opted for the transcript of Alabama attorney Clatus Junkin. Junkin's testimony had the virtue of being relatively brief (and thus, not too expensive). Moreover, there was a natural tie-in with Judge Moore, since Junkin's dust-up with Thompson also related to the Alabama GTA case.
By the way, I want to mention that without ECA president Hal Halpin, this series would not have been possible. When I pitched the idea to Hal and asked that the gamer advocacy organization (which owns GamePolitics) cover the not-insignificant cost of acquiring the initial round of transcripts, he didn't hesitate. When we needed additional transcripts later, Hal insisted that the ECA cover the expense.
Now, I didn't get the transcripts immediately. Preparing them takes some time and we were up against the holiday crunch when Thompson's Bar trial ended in December. The court reporter had a well-deserved vacation scheduled, which added a bit of delay as well. As it worked out, I received the Junkin and Moore transcripts on January 2nd of this year and tore into them immediately. I quickly realized that, while they told a fascinating tale, the testimony of the other game-related witnesses was needed to offer a well-rounded picture of the Bar's case against Thompson, as least as it related to the video game sector.
So the wonderful court reporter and I were once again in contact. I worked out an arrangement with her to acquire the transcript of Judge Ronald Friedman, who presided over the infamous Bully case. I also sought the testimony of a pair of Blank Rome attorneys, James Smith and Rebecca Ward. Smith and Ward were Thompson's opposing counsel in the Alabama GTA wrongful death lawsuit. It was their motion which prompted Judge Moore to remove Thompson from the case. Since the Alabama incident, Smith, Ward and the Blank Rome firm have been frequent targets of Thompson's ire.
The three new transcripts arrived on January 16th. After a quick read, I set them aside since I knew the series wouldn't run for another couple of months. For maximum interest, I wanted The Bar Trial of Jack Thompson to appear in advance of Judge Tunis' decision in April. Ultimately, I pegged March 18th as the date on which the first episode would be published.
There were some other prosecution witnesses against Thompson whose testimony I did not seek because they had no relation to video game issues. For his part, Thompson called no witnesses. Rather he testified on his own behalf for the better part of a week. While I didn't believe purchasing Thompson's lengthy testimony would be cost-effective, I did advise him that GP's series was imminent and offered him an opportunity to comment on his trial. I also asked him if he would provide me with the text of his closing argument, as this would summarize his defense.
Thompson not only declined, he threatened me with legal action if I went ahead and published the series without including his transcripts. We had the following less-than-pleasant e-mail exchange in the run-up to the March 18th debut of the series:
GP (March 17): I will be having coverage this week of testimony from your December Bar trial. Would you care to comment? I’d be interested in the text of any closing statement you might have made.
JT (March 17): Any reportage you undertake which does not correctly depict all that happened there, will be treated as libelous and actionable. You're paying for partial transcripts at your own great risk.
GP (March 17): You are invited to comment, and I’ve asked for your closing.
JT: (March 17): I am warning you that if you have trial transcript portions to the exclusion of my portions, then you are liable.
GP: (March 17): You’re given an opportunity to address the trial, comment on the trial and provide the text of your closing.
JT (March 18): I am not giving you anything re my Bar trial, then, as anything you report will be censored by you for the purpose of harming me, as you repeatedly have done. If you report on the trial, based on a partial transcript, then you're on the hook for any failure to report on the gist of the entire transcript and the entire trial. Any real journalist would understand that, but then you're not a journalist. You're an industry flak.
GP (March 18): We’ll be reporting on your Bar trial (you’re a public figure, it’s news) despite your unwillingness to offer your side and despite your threats.
JT (March 18): Returned, unread, and sent to my "Dennis McCauley never reports the inconvenient truth" folder. I spent nine days in trial. I don't have to relive it for a twit who couldn't care less what really happened there, asshole.
GP (March 18): Well, I very much care what happened at the trial. That’s why I’m reviewing the transcripts. And I’m very interested in your side, especially your closing. That’s why I’ve asked for your comments and the text of the closing, what, four times now?
JT (March 18): It speaks for itself
Despite Thompson's threat, GamePolitics published the first installment, detailing the testimony of Clatus Junkin, as scheduled on March 18th. The following morning I received, via e-mail, a cease-and-desist demand from Thompson, which read in part:
You are running a series of “articles” at your site about my Bar trial by selectively procuring transcripts of the portions thereof that suit your purposes. You have asked for me to provide you transcripts of other portions. I neither have them nor do I have a duty to provide them if I did have them. You have, however, a duty to procure transcripts for all portions of the trial if you are to profess to be reporting on this event in a non-libelous and fair fashion. This is the first breach of your legal duties to me.
The second breach is the fact that you have prohibited me not only from posting my responses to the false and defamatory comments about me by your posters in response to the above, but you also prohibit me from accessing your site directly. This is outrageous. This is supposed to be a site at which people can post their comments. You have excluded me from the opportunity to defend myself thereat...
GP: while it's true that Thompson is banned from posting, we do let his occasional post through; any responses he attempted to post to the Bar trial series were approved and appear on GP...
You and your parent organization are now on notice that I shall prosecute this latest assault upon me to the fullest extent of the law, and I shall look not only to you but to ECA for recompense.
Not only was the threat without merit, to give into it would effectively have ceded editorial control of GamePolitics to Thompson. Not on my watch.
Since Thompson refused to provide the text of his summary or offer any comment on the trial, I went back to the unflappable court reporter one more time, this time seeking Thompson's closing argument. Although Thompson probably wouldn't admit it, I'm convinced he got a fair shake in the Bar trial coverage. The series presented not only the witnesses' testimony, but Thompson's cross examination of them as well. An entire episode was devoted to Thompson's closing argument and two others covered nothing but his cross examination of witnesses (Judge Moore and Judge Friedman). And, while we don't have Thompson's testimony, neither do we have the Bar prosecutor's cross examination of him.
There were even some moments of unexpected levity in the series. GP readers especially enjoyed the back-and-forth between Judge Moore and Thompson over a courthouse fax machine which apparently gave up the ghost under the crushing weight of Thompson's frequent messages.
So where do we go from here?
The series has generated a great deal of interest in the Thompson case, with total reader comments running into the thousands. For his part, Thompson currently has lawsuits ongoing in U.S. District Court against the Florida Bar as well as against the Florida Supreme Court, which appointed Judge Tunis to hear the case and which will ultimately act on her recommendation. Thompson has also complained that a state-mandated loyalty oath for Judge Tunis was apparently signed by someone else. It is unclear how those allegations will play out and what effect, if any, they might have on the outcome of the Bar trial.
As a journalist who has been tracking this case for a long time, I'd be extremely surprised if Judge Tunis didn't recommend that Thompson be disbarred. On the other hand, I fully expect Thompson to appeal any such decision.
Whatever happens, do not expect Thompson to give up his culture crusade. Even as a non-lawyer, he can still act on his own behalf. He knows how to file cases. And while they may be able to take away his law license, unless the Florida Bar can confiscate his PC and his fax machine, don't count on Jack Thompson going away.
At least not quietly.
Click here for the entire series: The Bar Trial of Jack Thompson...