I imagine how a mouse might feel going up against Godzilla, just like Jack Sweeney is feeling right now. Sweeney, a third-year student at the University of Central Florida, received a cease-and-desist letter from pop star Taylor Swift’s legal team in December.
Sweeney found himself in the crosshairs of Swift’s attorney because of his penchant for mining publicly available air traffic data and using it to track various celebrities’ private jets and then posting that information on public social media accounts. Swift obviously didn’t like this trick. And now they have bad blood, to say the least.
As someone who has experienced the same treatment from Tay-Tay: Jack, welcome to the club. You’re not alone. And Taylor’s favorite legal tactic, the cease-and-desist order, is a well-worn, hackneyed tactic—usually not something to be afraid of.
In 2017, Swift also sent me a (legally absurd) cease and desist letter over a blog post I wrote. She – or rather her legal team – gave in after she was publicly shamed by numerous bloggers and magazines. And when the smoke cleared, I have to admit that it kind of helped my career as a lawyer.
Let me explain. In 2017, I was a year out of law school waiting for my bar results and unsure of where my impending admission and career would take me. I had written a short critique of Taylor’s strange politics for a small blog, PopFront, that I started with a few friends. Younger people may not remember this, but Taylor Swift used to be kind of apolitical. This seemed to be a deliberate PR strategy: early in her career she had more of a country vibe and probably didn’t want to upset those right-wing fans. I found it strange that so many alt-right types seemed to idolize her as an “Aryan” goddess, and equally strange that it seemed like she wasn’t doing anything to stop them. So I wrote a blog about it under the heading “Quick to the Right: Taylor Swift Subtly Shapes the Lowercase “kkk”” and then forgot about it entirely.
Months later, when I received Taylor’s letter via email, I honestly didn’t believe it was real. I figured there was no way I could have ended up on Taylor Swift’s radar. But somehow I succeeded: Swift’s lawyers were out there trying to shut down small blogs like mine with only a few thousand readers a month.
But because of my legal background, I knew I had freedom of speech and therefore had no reason to remove my blog article. And my first thought was to contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to represent me for free, and put out a cheeky press release full of references to Swift’s songs.
“Ms. Swift could not in her wildest dreams have used copyright law to suppress this exposure of a threat to constitutionally protected speech,” ACLU attorney Matt Cagle wrote at the time. The media and public loved it and ate it up.
I think the reason is that almost everyone has identified with the David versus Goliath narrative. (Well, everyone except the Goliaths.) Interview requests about the story are pouring in, from CNN to salon To Turn to Fox News (which I rejected). I was initially hesitant to speak out, but I felt that speaking out about the situation was part of addressing a larger injustice.
When I got my first job as an associate, my firm’s partners were impressed that I had the courage to stand up for free speech against one of the most famous and influential people in the world. Later, a professor of constitutional law asked me to give a guest lecture for her class.
I thought the story would go away, but online it persisted. Other journalists and people in the entertainment industry reached out to me on Twitter with similar stories about receiving cease-and-desist letters because they feared it could change their lives or harm their careers. After reading these stories, it became even clearer to me that the rich and powerful cannot get away with using lawyers to intimidate and harass journalists.
There was one positive outcome to the whole saga: after Swift was roundly condemned for sending me that frivolous letter, she began announcing her political stance and urging people to vote. I can’t look into Swift’s mind and I’m not sure if I was the trigger, but her political apathy was one of the points I made in my article.
Swift is one of the most followed people on social media with a big voice (and, until recently, a carbon footprint). She can and should use her platform to drive social change, especially given the fact that she is a role model for many children and young people. It is unfortunate that she has been embarrassed into taking a political stance and that, when given the opportunity to be accountable and reflect, she decides to go on the offensive with her legal team. I’m not sure that’s really her calling, but it reflects poorly on her and confirms her enormous level of entitlement and privilege.
But back to Jack Sweeney. Admittedly, his situation is a little different than mine, as he’s no stranger to annoying celebrities with his jet-tracking widgets. He previously infuriated Elon Musk by stalking his private jet as it flew around the world. Musk subsequently suspended him from X for this offense (and a new book suggests this may have been the catalyst for him buying Twitter). But Swift, unlike Musk, doesn’t own any social media companies and can’t easily hide other people’s social media posts.
And finally, Sweeney should know that Swift has a strange penchant for writing songs about small details in her life – sometimes obscured by a few layers of analogies and metaphors. After being publicly criticized for her efforts to silence a soft-spoken blogger, Swift named her next album Reputation.
“My reputation has never been worse,” she sang on the single “Delicate.” I’ve always wondered if the song or album might just be a… tiny A little bit about what happened to me or the ACLU. Okay, probably not, but at least there’s something to laugh about. And Sweeney might ask the same question when a song comes on Tortured Poets Department via her private jet.