UC Berkeley professor sued over comments about potential Russian involvement in election

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UC Berkeley linguistics professor emeritus George Lakoff is being sued for comments he made about potential Russian influence in the 2016 election.

Lakoff called Irakly Kaveladze — a Georgian American businessman who attended a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Russian officials in June 2016 — the major person responsible for money laundering from Russia in an interview with MSNBC on Jan. 3.

In the interview, Lakoff spoke about President Donald Trump’s ties to money laundering and used Kaveladze’s presence at the meeting to prove his point, calling him the “eighth man” in Trump’s inner circle.

Kaveladze is suing Lakoff, alleging that these accusations are “baseless and scurrilous.” Scott Balber, Kaveladze’s attorney, has stated on multiple occasions that his client had no prior knowledge or engagement with Russian officials before the meeting.

“California’s anti-SLAPP statute protects individuals like Dr. Lakoff from being forced to engage in a costly litigation of frivolous claims such as Mr. Kaveladze’s,” said Travis LeBlanc, Lakoff’s attorney, in an email.

Lakoff, who retired in 2016, taught linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley for 44 years. He also co-founded the Citizens’ Communication Network, which offers free framing services for activists, after the last presidential election.

Campus law professor emeritus Jesse Choper, who specializes in 1st Amendment rights and the Supreme Court, said precedent indicates Kaveladze may have a “steep uphill ride” ahead of him.

Choper cited New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 Supreme Court case that established that freedom of speech bars a civil judgement for criticism of public officials.

Campus alumna Nikky Mohanna started a GoFundMe for Lakoff’s legal defense. According to several tweets, some activists and professors have contributed to the campaign.

“This is the United States,” LeBlanc said. “We will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit attacking Dr. Lakoff’s 1st Amendment rights.”

Contact Janani Natarajan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jrnatarajan.

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  • John Pavliga

    It would have been more responsible and intellectually honest for Lakoff to have qualified his comments about Kaveladze, saying there are seemingly credible allegations against him, or that stories linking him to money laundering raise suspicions and give credence to rumors about Russian influence with the Trump team. But Lakoff went further and directly accused Kaveladze of money laundering. Presumably Lakoff has no first-hand knowledge of Kaveladze, money laundering or the past or current investigations, so Lakoff’s accusation is speculation. Perhaps plausible and maybe even accurate… though we have no way to know for sure, and it’s worth remembering that Kaveladze has not been convicted of anything.

    However this turns out, people really ought to be more thoughtful before throwing rhetorical bombs, especially an eminent communicator like George Lakoff.

  • jeyhovah

    I attended a number of lectures of George Lakoff because he is clearly a genius when it comes to language — his take on a number of issues blows my mind and has helped me see the world in a different way. I don’t, however, think that he should open his mouth on topics for which he has 0 training in. It just shows the hubris of this man, of which he has tons (for good reason, too). It’s just annoying he put his foot in his mouth.

    • Nunya Beeswax

      He’s free to have an opinion, the same as you or me. He’s a liberal academic talking head, so he gets asked to be on CNN the same way they’d ask Jordan Peterson to be on CNN if they wanted someone more conservative.

      I mean, come on–if only experts were ever allowed to talk about anything, then we would have been deprived of hearing a single word from Trump over the last decade.

      On second thought–

  • John Smith

    Maybe nobody bothered explaining to this Russian that he just volunteered to get deposed under oath A deposition, btw, that isn’t *just* limited to the facts of the case. Anything and everything is fair game, including *all* of his business dealings; those with Putin not excepted.


    The last thing that this guy probably wants is to get deposed under oath — especially about Putin — and, when he learns about that, watch how fast this case — or he — goes away.