Bay Area blogger's dispute with Taylor Swift goes viral

FILE - In this Feb. 4, 2017 file photo, Taylor Swift performs at the DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert in Houston, Texas. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision/AP, File)


When Northern California blogger Meghan Herning wrote a post critical of pop diva Taylor Swift, she never expected to be threatened with a lawsuit.

Instead of silencing a critic, the reaction by Swift’s legal team to Herning’s blog post – questioning the singer’s appeal to white supremacists – has made the dispute go viral the same week that Swift’s new album, “Reputation,” is set to debut.

“It’s laughable because it’s so crazy,” said Herning, a recent law school graduate and entrepreneur.

Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California took up Herning’s case and gave the singer’s lawyers one week to respond.

“I find out next week if I passed the bar (exam) – the same week Taylor might sue me,” Herning said Wednesday.

At the center of the dispute is Herning’s blog post, “ Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation,” published Sept. 5 on PopFront, a tiny online magazine based in the Bay Area that Herning started in 2014 with college friends.

“We didn’t create the website with intent to be large,” Herning said. “It was just for us (bloggers) and friends. We had a very small presence when this all started.

“In the last 24 hours, we’ve gotten more than 100,000 clicks (on the story),” she added. “I went from 76 Twitter followers to 150,000.”

Written after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., Herning’s blog post questioned Swift’s appeal to neo-Nazis. She cited how the far-right Breitbart News Network embraced Swift’s lyrics and wondered why Swift had not more publicly disavowed that audience.

The lyrics in Swift’s hit song “Look What You Made Me Do” are vague and open to interpretation: “I don’t like your kingdom keys. They once belonged to me. ... But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time. Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time.”

Reviews of the song’s video noted its many insider references to Swift’s career and relationships. There is no mention of race or politics in the lyrics. But in Herning’s view, they contain a hidden meaning.

“Taylor’s lyrics in ‘ Look What You Made Me Do’ seem to play to the same subtle, quiet white support of a racial hierarchy,” Herning wrote. “Many on the alt-right see the song as part of a ‘re-awakening,’ in line with (Donald) Trump’s rise. ... (Swift) is giving support to the white nationalist movements through lyrics that speak to their anger, entitlement and selfishness.”

Fewer than 200 people probably saw the original post, estimated Herning. It was only her second post this year.

“I really was reading the lyrics of that song ... and seeing the political undertones,” she explained.

Almost seven weeks after the story first appeared online, Herning couldn’t believe it when one of Swift’s lawyers, William J. Briggs II, sent her a cease-and-desist letter, demanding immediate retraction and threatening to sue. Dated Oct. 25, the four-page letter also included a copyright clause, threatening more action if the letter was shared or reprinted.

“Absolutely, I was shocked,” Herning said. “I had to establish it was even real. I got it via email, not certified mail. It was very weird. To me, it all seemed crazy.”

In the letter, Briggs wrote, “The story is replete with demonstrable and offensive falsehoods which bear no relation to reality or the truth about Ms. Swift. It appears to be a malicious attack against Ms. Swift that goes to great lengths to portray Ms. Swift as some sort of white supremacist figurehead, which is a baseless fiction masquerading as fact and completely misrepresents Ms. Swift.”

Briggs did not respond to a request for further comment.

Herning, 30, shared the letter with another recent law school grad, lawyer friends and a favorite law professor. Then, she sought counsel from the ACLU’s Northern California branch in San Francisco.

“Intimidation tactics like these are unacceptable,” ACLU attorney Matt Cagle said. “Not in her wildest dreams can Ms. Swift use copyright law to suppress this exposure of a threat to constitutionally protected speech.”

“This is a completely unsupported attempt to suppress constitutionally protected speech,” added ACLU lawyer Michael Risher.

In its response, the ACLU lawyers wrote, “The blog post is a mix of core political speech and critical commentary; it discusses current politics in this country, the recent rise of white supremacy, and the fact that some white supremacists have apparently embraced Ms. Swift, along with a critical interpretation of some of Ms. Swift’s music, lyrics, and videos.”

Since the dispute surfaced Monday, Herning has been pilloried online by thousands of Swift fans, but she’s glad she spoke up.

“This is a First Amendment issue,” Herning said. “Taylor Swift is trying to silence us.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington