Assessing Legal Threats

Threatening to sue someone is a cheap and easy way to intimidate them—consequently, legal threats are popular tools of bullies and abusers. If you do a lot of consent activism, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone threatens to sue you. Trust us on this one.

When someone threatens to sue you, start by evaluating the situation:

  • Assess the threat: is this empty bluster or a serious statement of intent?
  • Assess your legal exposure: have you said anything that might be defamatory?
  • Assess the strategic situation: are you ready to go to court? Is your opponent?

Assess the threat

We assess threats based on their specificity. The more specific a threat is, the more likely it is that your opponent will follow through on it.

A casual threat is vague and non-specific: “you better get yourself a lawyer”. In our experience, casual threats are usually an attempt to intimidate rather than a statement of serious intention. Nonetheless, you should still take them seriously.

A specific threat usually involves some kind of ultimatum: “I will sue you if you tell anyone what happened on Saturday night”.

A demand letter is a letter from a lawyer that threatens to sue you unless you meet a specific demand. Demand letters typically specify a legal rationale for suing you. If someone has gone to the trouble and expense of hiring a lawyer to write a demand letter, they are more likely to actually sue you.

Assess your legal exposure

Next, assess your legal situation and see whether you’ve said anything that might be defamatory. You can be sued even if you haven’t done anything wrong, but it’s important to know where you stand.

It is hard to objectively assess your own actions when you’re feeling hurt and defensive: consider getting help from someone who is detached from the situation. In some cases, you may want to hire a lawyer for this part.

You should review everything you’ve said or written about the person who is threatening you, looking for any statements that a hostile lawyer could argue were defamatory. It’s important that you look at what you’ve said from the perspective of someone who’s trying to find fault with it, not from a perspective of justifying your actions.

If you feel confident that everything you’ve said was true and appropriate, your opponent can still sue you, but you are in a strong position to navigate whatever comes next.

On the other hand, if you’ve said some regrettable things you are in a much more complicated position. You should probably get a lawyer and think about backing down.

Assess the strategic situation

We hope you realize by now that the legal system is only partly about justice. In addition to understanding your legal exposure, you also need to take a hard look at the strategic situation. Having the law on your side does you no good if you can’t afford to go to court.

Consider these questions about yourself and your opponent:

  • Can I / they afford the expense of a lawsuit?
  • Can I / they afford the publicity that might accompany a lawsuit?
  • Will a lawsuit cause me / them an intolerable level of emotional distress or activate existing trauma?
  • Do I / they have anything to hide?
  • Would discovery uncover damaging information about me / them?
  • Can I / they find allies in the fight?
  • How would a lawsuit affect my / their reputation? Beware of winning the battle and losing the war.

When your opponent is a lawyer

Lawyers are subject to specific ethical guidelines that prohibit them from abusing the legal system. If the person who is threatening you is a lawyer, it is possible that in some extreme cases you might be able to file an ethics complaint with their state bar association.

In very extreme cases, you might be able to file an ethics complaint against your opponent’s lawyer. That’s very rare: lawyers are given considerable latitude when acting on their client’s behalf.


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