A prominent Utah doctor and abortion provider is suing a conservative national news outlet, alleging libelous reporting that she says has damaged her reputation.
Leah Torres, in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court, accuses the media site The Daily Caller of publishing a story that claimed she had provided illegal abortions. And, as a result, she adds, she lost her job.
The article, put online in March 2018, quotes a tweet from Torres responding to someone saying that she commits infanticide. In the post, the doctor noted that she cuts a fetus’ “cord” in the first trimester of a pregnancy and that there is no pain. She later posted another response to clarify that she was talking about the umbilical cord.
But The Daily Caller wrote that she severed the vocal cord, suggesting that the doctor didn’t want to hear any audible response from the fetus. (That would be an illegal procedure, though that kind of reaction is generally considered not possible at that stage, according to the most accepted medical research.) It also included comments from conservative writer Ben Shapiro, who called Torres a villain.
The story was later picked up by The Western Journal, another defendant named in Torres’ lawsuit.
The doctor, an OB-GYN who was until recently based in Salt Lake City, calls the posts “a deliberate dissemination of a lie” in the filing. And, she says, she was not providing abortions at the time of the reports.
“The internet has been weaponized by anti-abortion extremists to amplify and distort information, as a result causing online and offline harassment, stalking and violence against abortion providers and advocates,” the lawsuit claims.
The Daily Caller was founded in 2010 by Neil Patel, the current publisher, and Tucker Carlson, now a host and commentator on Fox News. Carlson — who is still mentioned prominently on the site’s staff list — this week has been fighting his critics after decade-old audio resurfaced of him making degrading comments about women and opinions about statutory rape and underage marriage.
Patel responded to The Salt Lake Tribune’s comment by noting his company has not yet received the legal complaint.
“As to the substance of the matter,” he wrote in an email, "... our reporter reported accurately in his piece what Ben Shapiro and others on Twitter were saying. The doctor then tweeted again well after our publication that she was referring to cutting an umbilical cord and not a vocal cord. Upon learning of this clarification from the doctor, to be as fair as possible, we have now updated the piece in question to include the doctor’s contention.”
The Tribune was unable to reach anyone by phone or email at The Western Journal for response Wednesday evening. Torres directed comments to her attorney, Carrie Goldberg.
“I would just emphasize that those like Dr. Torres, who work in abortion rights — performing them, funding them, educating about them or furthering access to them — are among the most harassed populations in the United States,” Goldberg said in an email. “This is a case about one voice refusing to be silenced despite defamation and threats. Dr. Torres was accused of providing unlawful abortions. It was untrue and yet trolls on the internet perpetuated the rumor, putting Dr. Torres in fear for her life.”
In her court filing, Torres said the stories resulted in hundreds of personal attacks against her on Twitter, including death threats. Some users on the social media platform published her address, workplace and phone number.
On March 15, she deleted the original tweet. But a week later, Torres said, her employer asked her to leave because of the disturbance and distraction it was causing, including people calling in to the front desk with more threats. She has since moved out of Utah, where she is licensed, for a job in another state.
Torres is asking the U.S. District Court to find that the articles amounted to defamation — which is generally hard to prove — and that she suffered emotional distress. She is asking to be awarded financial damages.