Ideas from the Front
When the Stars Align
Enlisting Celebrity Support for Legal Causes Can Influence the Court of Public Opinion
Posted Sep 29, 2005 2:25 AM CDT
By Molly McDonough
In a dimly lit room adorned with ornate folk art treasures at Chicago’s House of Blues, a group of business-casual lawyers lunched this spring with black-T-shirt-clad members of the thrash metal band Anthrax.
This wasn’t a client meeting, although talk of litigation did dominate the conversation. More precisely, the topic of discussion was how this aging group of rockers on a reunion tour could breathe life into a lawsuit aimed at challenging the military’s compulsory anthrax vaccination immunization program.
The irony can hardly go unnoticed. Anthrax, the band, is opposing anthrax the vaccine. It’s a collaboration that has even some fans perplexed.
But for the lawyers who are grasping for any edge, the extra publicity from Anthrax may be just what they need.
There is no shortage of examples of celebrities lending their names to support pet social causes. Think of Mike Farrell, of MASH fame, and his long-fought battle against the death penalty. Or of celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson or musician Dave Matthews who leverage their star power to draw attention to environmental issues. Then there’s actress Angelina Jolie, who’s making headlines on behalf of refugees as she travels the globe as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Reaching the Right Audience
But finding the ultimate witness to persuade the court of opinion can be more complex when it comes to litigation, experts say. They warn that stars may attract a fan base that could hurt rather than help.
Anthrax, with its Slave to the Metal Foundation, is no stranger to promoting social causes. After the band’s manager alerted members to the issue, they decided to approach the plaintiffs’ team representing those who claim the anthrax vaccine is unsafe and causes a host of harmful reactions, including rheumatoid arthritis and heart problems.
Fans, however, haven’t quite grasped the rationale. “They still think it’s an April Fools’ joke,” says guitarist Scott Ian, who carefully monitors fan chat groups. The reference is only natural, considering the band’s first announcement that it had taken up the anti-vaccine cause on behalf of military personnel was made in New York City on April 1. “I’m not sure they thought we were actually serious about it,” Ian says.
But this is no joke to Chicago labor and employment lawyer John J. Michels Jr., a retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel leading the pro bono effort in Doe v. Rumsfeld, No. 04 5440, pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The suit, which was filed in March 2003 on behalf of six unnamed service members and civilians, contends the mandatory vaccine was illegal because it was experimental and improperly licensed by the Food and Drug Administration. A federal judge issued an injunction last October that barred use of the vaccination program pending further FDA action.
Michels hopes fans not only get the message soon, but that they spread the word to friends, family and, especially, fellow enlisted men and women.
In many ways, Michels couldn’t have asked for a better messenger. The band’s audience is largely made up of 16- to 35-year-old males, almost exactly the demographic class Michels and his associates are hoping to reach.
“The music these guys play is popular with the troops,” Michels says. “They weren’t playing the Carpenters when they were storming Baghdad. They were playing Anthrax.” The alliance, Michels says, “raises the profile of the issue. It puts it in front of an audience that I normally would not be reaching.”
But litigation consultant Judy Leon of Washington, D.C., says joining forces with a counter-authority band could backfire. The lawyers could end up, by association, alienating the “stakeholder groups” that the plaintiffs really need to sway, says Leon, senior vice president for strategic communications at litigation research firm DecisionQuest.
Ultimately, Michels will need the support of traditional families and lawmakers. And straying from more conventional sources of support and aligning with Anthrax—and the shock value inherent in heavy metal music—may work against that effort, Leon says. Families “may be turned off by this as would members of Congress.”
Leon suggests an alternative. Lawyers who need to build support for litigation need to reach out and create a wider base of support. If a celebrity is possible, find one—like, for example, Bruce Springsteen—who has broader appeal.
An Alternative Approach
And if a celebrity spokesperson is not an option, coalition building is another way to secure popular support. Just ask Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
For years, as a journalist and activist opposed to the death penalty, Warden attempted to draw attention to wrongful convictions.
Momentum began to build as, one by one, inmates on death row were exonerated. But not until one of his associates had the bright idea to get all of the exonerated men together did real change occur. Until then, wrongful convictions were perceived as isolated events. “The approach of the Center on Wrongful Convictions has been to achieve the achievable, to be very pragmatic about our approach, and to work for incremental reforms that will improve the quality of the criminal justice system,” Warden says.
As it turns out, though Farrell and other outspoken critics of the death penalty lent their time and names, no celebrities were needed to evacuate death row in Illinois, where in 2003 then-Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all of the state’s death row inmates.
“The wrongfully convicted have been the most powerful spokespersons,” Warden says.
It helped that Warden’s center worked to define the debate. The center studied other grassroots movements to find out what worked for them. And then Warden and his colleagues went on a mission to enlist the support of groups not previously affiliated with the center—including victims, evangelical Christians and Republicans—all of them attracted by the goal of improving the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system. “Everyone is in favor of making the system more accurate,” Warden says. Finding this common ground and building support can be a powerful weapon, as Leon also suggests. She is not convinced that Anthrax will be effective for Michels and his associates. “Are you really going to mount a public activist corps from any heavy metal group?” she asks.
Anthrax band members seem just as unsure, but they are willing to try.
One reason to try is that band members have discovered that there are some compelling stories to tell. Drummer Charlie Benante says he’s met several people who say they have been affected by the vaccine. He met a soldier who told him that when he refused to take the vaccine, he was discharged from the military and lost all his benefits.
Another soldier told him that after taking the vaccine, he suffered two heart attacks and has had trouble with blood clotting. “I’m really impressed with the soldiers faced with these choices,” Benante says.
Michels is heartened by the band’s understanding of the issue and its ability to articulate the problems to a new audience. “It’s an uphill battle right now,” Michels says. “To have a band embrace this issue is tremendous.”