Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation isn’t shy about litigation. He previously sued the US Air Force Academy and the US Department of Defense (twice). He has threatened Trijicon with litigation after Trijicon said their critics were “not Christian.” He threatened to sue a critic who sent him mocking emails. He is currently suing former Navy Chaplain Klingenschmitt and his endorsers for “terrorist acts.” His organization claims to be preparing to sue the Army over the treatment of a Muslim US Soldier. And these are just the examples made public.
Now, Weinstein has threatened to file yet another lawsuit in his efforts to “litigate and agitate” his way into influence with regard to religion in the US military.
His latest lawsuit target? ChristianFighterPilot.com.
The lengths to which Weinstein will go – even beyond a lawsuit – are a testament to his desperation.
Last fall, lawyers representing the MRFF contacted ChristianFighterPilot.com demanding posts critical of Michael Weinstein be removed from this site. They also demanded personal financial information, presumably to cover the financial ‘compensation’ to which Weinstein thought he was due. The crux of the complaint was posts on God and Country had “libeled” Weinstein and “damaged his reputation.” Notably, this is the same website about which Weinstein once said (text unedited)
I WILL offer kudos on that tiny blog you apparently write your fundamenatlist [sic] Christian screed on as I hear you now have almost 9 readers!! ; [sic] well, 3, if you don’t count your family members by blood and marriage and military subordinates who work for you……….[sic]
Apparently, the “tiny” blog with 3 readers has become so influential a non-profit organization boasting more than $500,000 in annual income and 17,000 undefined “clients” feels the need to make legal threats to protect its “reputation.”
The Rutherford Institute and Los Angeles First Amendment attorney William J. Becker, Jr., agreed to defend against the threatened litigation. The Rutherford Institute is a nationally known defender of civil liberties in America, and is currently defending the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches against Weinstein’s lawsuit. William Becker is a noted free speech and religious liberty lawyer who has represented authors David Horowitz (FrontPageMag.com) and Robert Spencer (JihadWatch.com), among others.
When Weinstein’s attorneys finally specified the complaint (they initially demanded the deletion of whole pages, without qualification), they noted only two types of comments:
- Those demonstrably true based on publicly available information, and
- Opinions based on those facts.
Under US law, libel must be a false, factual statement. By definition, truth and opinion are not libelous.
As an example, Weinstein apparently took issue with the following statement at God and Country, which appeared in an article criticizing Weinstein’s organization for fundraising at the expense of a Chaplain’s religious freedom, rather than defending it, as his “religious freedom” organization claims to do:
Instead, they are attempting to cash in… at the cost of the religious freedom of US troops (more accurately, it is Weinstein who is ‘cashing in’ since about half of all MRFF donations go to him personally, allowing him to pocket more than $250,000 last year alone).
For those who don’t realize, as a 501(c)3 (a tax-exempt, non-profit “charitable” organization), the MRFF is required to publicly publish its IRS filings. While they are often short on specifics, they do provide insight into the basic finances of an organization. For example, Weinstein’s 2008 IRS Form 990 (the latest year for which data is available), shows this on Part I, Line 1 (image edited for width):
The MRFF took in more than a half-million dollars in “contributions, gifts, and grants” in 2008. During the same period, one of its expenses was (Part IV, address redacted):
This data is factual and true: it is signed under penalty of perjury by Weinstein himself.
Based on this data, it is evident Michael L. Weinstein, the person who created the MRFF and currently runs it, took as a salary 46.3% of the income of his own non-profit organization.
Thus, the statement Weinstein’s lawyers claimed was “libelous” was composed of verifiably true facts. The complainant was wrong, but that didn’t stop the threat.
Though this information is publicly available, it may be understandable why Weinstein would try to intimidate someone into silence for highlighting it. In contrast to Weinstein’s remuneration, Charity Navigator, a reputable evaluator of non-profit organizations, said in 2005:
the average charity’s CEO’s salary makes up about 3.4% of the organization’s total functional expenses. (emphasis added)
In 2009, Charity Navigator said the average CEO salary for non-profits with total expenses below $3.5 million (as is Weinstein’s) was $90,747 (compared to Weinstein’s quarter million). Thus, the MRFF has total expenses in the bottom seventh of the lowest expense band, yet it paid its creator nearly three times more than the other charities in its class. Such a financial scheme is shameful for a “non-profit,” “charitable” organization.
It is impossible to know precisely why Weinstein wanted to hide, or at least downplay, the salary he took from the non-profit he created. Finances are certainly central to his cause, however, as his frequent appeals for cash attest. In point of fact, Weinstein’s research assistant Chris Rodda once made a personal plea for Weinstein’s own financial need (emphasis added):
Realize this was the end of June 2008. Rodda said Weinstein didn’t “pay himself a salary,” and this was six months into a year in which he would eventually “pay himself,” as noted above, more than $250K — nearly half of the total donations for which his employee was passionately begging contributions. (Rodda later defended her statement, saying it was “absolutely true”…for 2007.) That income includes $85,000 from the Jewish Communal Fund.
That Weinstein felt the truth was “damaging” to his reputation does not make it impermissible or illegal to speak (or write) the truth. Free speech, as protected by the Constitution, is a basic human liberty. In fact, it is because of their unique entitlement to tax-exemption that 501(c)3s are open to public scrutiny — scrutiny that will naturally result in praise or criticism for the non-profits’ handling of the monies they receive from average Americans.
Should Weinstein take issue with a comment, he has access to the same freedom of speech to refute it. (Members of the MRFF, including board member Richard Baker and research assistant Chris Rodda, had frequently commented on this site; they never refuted the truth of those statements. Their comments have since ceased, coinciding with the threatened lawsuit as well as their frequent tendency to put their foot in the MRFF’s mouth.) As Thomas Jefferson said, it is the competition of ideas, not their suppression, that protects truth:
Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself…she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons: free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
Attorney William Becker explained this clearly in a letter to Weinstein’s attorneys that demonstrated both the weakness of their case and its contradiction with the Constitution Weinstein claims to defend:
Statements of opinion cannot be defamatory because there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas. The factual claims you have identified are based on publicly available tax information… The inferences drawn from the tax information logically lead to the expressions of opinion…each of which is constitutionally protected on the basis of the facts from which they are drawn, the public interest nature of the subject matter and the public figure classification of your clients.
Becker’s letter was followed by silence, effectively ending the threatening correspondence from Weinstein’s attorneys. It did not end his efforts at intimidation, however.
Weinstein has been quick to criticize Christians, especially those in the military, with vitriol and prejudice. Based on the number of times he has threatened litigation against his critics, however, it appears he is extremely sensitive to criticisms of his own actions, even when those criticisms are both true and public knowledge. When his public conduct was simply repeated in this forum, Weinstein demanded this site remove its content and implied a threat of financial liability — recourse to which he had no legal entitlement. He criticizes others with vitriol but wilts at criticism of himself; it would appear the man who often presents himself as a rugged fighter is actually a delicate flower.
Based on this example and his other threats of litigation, it is apparent Weinstein engages in a pattern of intimidation — litigious and otherwise — to silence his critics. Though he often plays up his status as a victim, Weinstein doesn’t seem averse to intimidating others himself. He doesn’t seem shy about admitting this, either.
In 2005, a letter written by an alleged graduate of the US Air Force Academy told the Colorado Springs Gazette Weinstein had fabricated anti-Semitic assaults as a cadet as a cry for attention. This is how Weinstein recounts his lawyer’s words to that critic in his 2008 book, With God on Our Side, now available in the bargain section of Amazon:
[The lawyer told him he] would lose everything he owned, everything his children might come to own, and everything any of them ever hoped to own. He pointed out…I would never ever rest until my name was completely cleared, which implied, very directly I think, utterly destroying this guy in the process.
Litigation hasn’t been his only threat. Weinstein “challenged” now-disgraced Pastor Ted Haggard to a fight “behind the junior high school,” expressed a desire to box Rush Limbaugh, and said General William Boykin made him want to “take a Louisville Slugger to [Boykin's] kneecaps, his big fat belly, and his head.” In a twist of irony, Weinstein is suing former Navy Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt for a “threatening” prayer, while Weinstein himself has said:
I would like to beat the [expletive] out of [Klingenschmitt] in a boxing ring or in an alley behind a Safeway.
His threats against ChristianFighterPilot.com went beyond litigation as well. After his legal threats failed to achieve his ends, Weinstein’s next attempt to “utterly destroy” his critics was to lodge a frivolous complaint with the US military. That, too, was unsuccessful. His desperation, however, is evident; his frantic attempts to intimidate this site into silence are little more than what the ADF once described as “throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks.”
Weinstein’s failures here are consistent with his record to date. Since he began his crusade, his record has been abysmal: Not one of his lawsuits has survived to trial. (The only remaining lawsuit, Weinstein v Ammerman, is widely expected to fail, if it even makes it to trial.) More telling, despite impassioned promises, he has never filed a single appeal. It seems he values the initial shock of a scandalous lawsuit announcement more than actually seeing his client’s case successfully resolved. (It may also be a tacit admission on his part that he never had a viable case to begin with.) He seeks publicity and a trial in the court of public opinion; his narcissistic desire for the former may motivate his attempts to silence those who oppose him.
As demonstrated by his actions against ChristianFighterPilot.com and others, Weinstein seems intent on silencing his critics, even by unjustified intimidation to their property, their families, and even their physical well-being, as if to do so would somehow legitimize his cause. The man who has made a living off “agitation” and criticism of Christians desires to “utterly destroy” those who agitate and criticize him.
Those aren’t the actions of a religious freedom advocate or defender of the Constitution.
They’re the traits of an insecure playground bully.