It was about a year ago when the San Francisco Chronicle ran a pair of articles citing accusations of sexual harassment toward Shahid Buttar, a Pakistani-American constitutional lawyer and progressive activist who twice ran against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to represent California’s 12th congressional district.
It was about a week ago when Buttar sued the Chronicle for reckless disregard for the truth and actual malice.
The first Chronicle article relevant to the case was titled “Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi’s Election Opponent, Accused of Sex Harassment” and ran on July 22, 2020 in their print edition. A follow-up ran two days later, on July 24. The articles sourced a Medium essay written by a woman named Elizabeth Croydon, who alleged she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Buttar after meeting him in Washington, D.C., in 2003. In it, she wrote, “Shahid repeatedly pursued me for sex. In our earliest interactions, Shahid would dance up to me at social events, brush up against me in a sexual way and make comments about my body including weight gain or loss. I directly and clearly rejected his advances.”
Soon a dozen-plus people who claim to know Croydon penned an open letter in Buttar’s defense, stating in part, “The accuser is well known in the D.C. social-justice community. Unfortunately, this troubled individual has a long history of fabricating attacks against innocent people.”
A six-part Medium article centering on Croydon struck a similar note.
Regardless, the accusations had a chilling effect on Buttar’s campaign, spurring divisions among his one-time supporters while impacting his reputation. Meanwhile, the occurrence provoked a broader discussion among progressives about uncorroborated accusations of sexual misconduct being weaponized to upend candidates’ campaigns. Per an Intercept article on the matter, “Attacks online and in private meetings have driven those on both sides to take caution with what they say publicly about [Buttar’s] campaign for fear of alienating longtime friends and colleagues.”
Among the vocal was Buttar’s former campaign manager, Jasper Wilde, who stepped down from the campaign because the job “made for a toxic workplace environment in which personal and professional boundaries were repeatedly violated.” She went on to write, “Ultimately, the reason that I and 12 other staffers and contractors left the campaign after winning the primary was because we had dealt with and tolerated violations of professional and personal boundaries.”
From the opposing perspective, Gloria Berry, Chair of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, Black Lives Matter Committee, wrote on Medium, “I am concerned that this might not get the due process that it deserves and could potentially ruin the political career of a brown man based on little to no proof of any wrongdoing.”
She added, “The staff said Shahid was mean to them, which I witnessed more as constructive feedback. But I have yet to see any details or examples of sexual harassment or mistreatment of women.”
Amid the debate, Buttar has highlighted the San Francisco Chronicle’s reporting as a key factor in his campaign’s ultimate failure. Said Buttar in a statement upon filing his lawsuit against the paper, “The Constitution permits the press wide latitude to cover public figures. But it doesn’t allow the press to weaponize known fabrications. To print uncorroborated information — and then to refuse to run corrections even when confronted with conflicting evidence — is both reckless and malicious.”
The statement itself went on to read, “In other words: The Chronicle flunked Journalism 101. Specifically, it ignored multiple voices who had made themselves readily available…The Chronicle’s stories represent character assassination disguised as journalism.”
Buttar continued, “I’m a brown Muslim immigrant who was challenging the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and racism isn’t just about race; it’s also about power. In this context, for the newspaper of record to amplify a false accusation, and then fail to correct its record — that’s as insidious a reflection of white supremacy as burning a cross outside City Hall.”