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.