Many fans try to get the attention of celebrities with letters, artwork, and gifts. Russell Godfrey Greer decided to get Taylor Swift’s attention by taking her to court.
Greer, an ex-Mormon, has used the paralegal training he gained at the Latter-day Saints Business College to frantically vie for Miss Swift’s attention. The quixotic Utahn is at once a nobody and a figure with an online audience of hundreds who have followed his public efforts to romance Miss Swift.
Greer believes that not only does he deserve Swift’s attention, but he has a legal right to it. The argument underlying Greer v. Swift goes something like this: by responding to gifts and other gestures made by fans, Swift created an expectation that she would accept and appreciate other such gifts. When Greer recorded a love song for Swift—more on the song in a second—and it was turned away by Swift’s agents on her behalf, Swift became guilty of creating false representation. In a motion Greer filed in September, he analogizes Swift’s actions to those of a shoe store selling defective shoes while advertising them as high-quality.
In 2015, a pair of preteen Swifties folded a flock of 1,989 paper cranes in honor of Swift’s mother Andrea, who had been diagnosed with cancer. If Swift accepted those origami cranes, Greer asks, why shouldn’t she be expected to accept a love song written for her personally?
Greer’s song, “I Get You, Taylor Swift,” was produced through Tunedly, previously SongCat, a New York company that sets songwriters up with studio musicians, singers, and engineers. The song can be heard online for free. Its lyrics are a patchwork of song and album titles from Swift’s oeuvre: “Can’t imagine being ‘Fifteen’ / And waiting for Romeo on that ‘White Horse’ / Making you believe it was a ‘Love Story,’” and so on.
Greer blames the production company for the failure of “I Get You, Taylor Swift” to go platinum.
The Herculean creative challenges behind the song are recorded in Greer’s 2017 self-published autobiography/manifesto, Why I Sued Taylor Swift: and How I Became Falsely Known as Frivolous, Litigious, and Crazy:
“It was a long, tedious, difficult process that took a lot of time and concentration, but I imagined how happy Taylor would be when she heard it. I could imagine the kisses and the hugs and the laughs her and I would share with each other. I would be the best guy she had ever met. To boot, I would have an inspiring story about not letting my disability or bullies stop me.”
Greer has Möbius syndrome, a disorder that prevents him from moving his eyes from side to side, closing his mouth, or changing his facial expression. This rare condition is one of the central pillars of the identity Greer has built for himself: a disabled person inspiring others by overcoming his impairments, à la Christy Brown. From the jacket of Why I Sued Taylor Swift, describing Greer as an “advocate for disabled rights” to Greer’s unsuccessful bid to compete on America’s Got Talent as a “disabled motivational speaker,” it’s clear that Greer lives in an uneasy symbiosis with his disability.
For Greer, Möbius syndrome is an omnipresent burden—but it’s also part of what makes him a special and heroic individual, deserving of a pop star’s attention.
Dale Hartley, a retired psychology and business professor who blogs for Psychology Today, found his interest immediately piqued by Greer’s prolific online postings. Hartley cannot diagnose Greer, whom he has never examined, but he does possess a thorough knowledge of stalker psychology—both in theory and practice.
“As a professor I was stalked by a high-functioning autism-spectrum student (what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome), but he honestly didn’t understand that his behavior was unacceptable and annoying,” writes Hartley in an email. “That doesn’t give him carte blanche to keep doing it, but it does eliminate malice as a motive. Some stalkers use their disturbing stalking behavior to force their target to acknowledge them in some way, such as getting a restraining order or testifying in court.”
Though there may be no “archetypal stalker,” Hartley identifies a series of common characteristics: Stalkers tend to be more intelligent than most criminals, holding a high school diploma or better, but may be unemployed or underemployed. A typical stalker is male and in his late-thirties or late-forties.
The celebrity stalkers we hear about the most are those whose fixations escalate into violence. John Hinckley Jr., perhaps the most celebritized of celebrity stalkers, shot Ronald Reagan in an attempt to force actress Jodie Foster to acknowledge him. Hinckley’s final letter to Foster before the assassination attempt read, in part:
“As you well know by now, I love you very much. The past seven months I have left you dozens of poems, letters and messages in the faint hope you would develop an interest in me.
“Although we talked on the phone a couple of times, I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself. Besides my shyness, I honestly did not wish to bother you … I know the many messages left at your door and in your mailbox were a nuisance, but I felt it was the most painless way for me to express my love to you.
“I feel very good about the fact you at least know my name and how I feel about you. And by hanging around your dormitory I’ve come to realize that I’m the topic of more than a little conversation, however full of ridicule it may be. At least you know that I’ll always love you.”
Stalker Ricardo López, who planned to disfigure the singer Björk with a preposterously elaborate acid bomb, held similar goals: to force the singer to acknowledge his importance and to “have an effect on her life.”
Many celebrities, including Taylor Swift, are subjected to persistent harassment and threats from afar, but the best predictor of violent action is an attempt by the stalker physically to approach his target—for instance, Hinckley’s many trips to Yale, where Foster was attending classes. In fact, an attempted approach is virtually a prerequisite for a violent attack, according to a 2010 study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
Stalkers who send angry, threatening, vulgar, or lewd messages when initially making contact are less likely to approach their targets physically, the study found. However, stalkers who communicate a desire to meet their targets or who make contact through multiple means (e.g., sending letters as well as telephoning) are more likely to make an approach and, eventually, to harm their targets.
Hartley recommends that celebrities keep their interactions with fans polite, but impersonal. It’s safest only to interact with fans in tightly controlled settings: at a book-signing with conspicuous security and a briskly moving line. Celebrities ought to be particularly wary of taking selfies with fans, he says.
“Once the trouble has started, the celebrity and their security and legal team has lost control of the situation,” writes Hartley. “A restraining order is as likely to escalate as to de-escalate the situation. The stalker will certainly view the order itself as a trophy as well as a perverse form of personal recognition by the celebrity. If the stalker views a personal relationship with their target as the equivalent of a gold medal, then coming face to face with that person in a courtroom would be the silver.”
Oddly, stalkers whose fantasies involve having children with their targets tend to be less of a threat, says Hartley.
The writings of celebrity stalkers reflect a hyperbolic internal life spent simultaneously sailing through the stratosphere and dragging through the gutter. Their hearts are lyrically romantic and grotesquely violent, gorging on the vivid two-dimensional imagery published by their targets. A stalker may hope that their target will return their love, but they can accept being hated instead—the only possibility beyond consideration is that the target just doesn’t care about them.
All of Greer’s relationships have pivoted between these extremes of idealization and devaluation. On Instagram, Greer has been known to declare his love to various women. When rebuffed or ignored, he often accuses his target of prejudice against the disabled before moving on to begin the cycle again.
Greer’s feelings toward Swift have followed a similar pattern of idealization and devaluation. In Why I Sued Taylor Swift, Greer entertains a benign, if puerile, fantasy of wooing Swift with his music:
“In my imagination, I looked over and saw Taylor crying. I pulled out a hanky and wiped her tears. ‘Oh, Russell,’ Taylor cried. ‘This is the sweetest thing a guy has done for me.’
“‘Well, I…,’ I imagined I was too embarrassed to say anything, as I WAS sitting next to the most famous person in the world. And then I imagined Taylor looked at me with a seductive look. She bit her bottom lip as she leaned in towards me.
“‘You know what I wanna do, Russ?’ Taylor Swift whispered to me.
“I stuttered, trying to be cool. ‘My degree isn’t in mind-reading, Taylor,’ I said bashfully. ‘I can certainly guess….’
“‘Let’s have….’ Taylor began.
“My heart stopped.
“‘Ice cream,’ she finished her sentence with a devilish smile.”
In 2016, after Swift’s agents refused to pass along his song and he filed his first lawsuit against her, Greer’s attitude grew insistent, though not exactly hostile. It wasn’t until the dismissal of the lawsuit that Swift was recast as his nemesis. This wasn’t because the lawsuit was dismissed, but because, in the motion to dismiss, Swift’s attorney wrote that Swift and her family found Greer’s frenzied attempts to contact her “unnecessarily invasive and troubling.”
This did nothing to dissuade Greer that Swift felt passionately toward him—only, now, he came to insist that Swift “hated” him. A disillusioned Greer posted on Facebook: “Her family disability shamed me; her agents kicked me in the jewels; and Taylor stabbed me in the heart and spit in my face.”
Greer illustrated this turnaround quite literally, in the prologue to Why I Sued Taylor Swift, in a comic he commissioned through the website Fiverr. The comic depicts Greer, in a celestial setting, being stabbed and then kicked back down toward Earth by Swift, who appears, valkyrie-like, looking down on him from a cloud.
“In his view, she has cruelly abused his good intentions—his cartoon shows her with a knife literally stabbing him in the back,” writes Hartley. “This is projection—he is not trying to destroy her; she is trying to destroy him… The violent thoughts are his, but are not owned by him. Otherwise, he would be the bad guy, and cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head. I think Swift’s security team should be vigilant and wary.”
In Utah, stalking is defined, roughly, as knowingly causing another person fear or other emotional distress by approaching, monitoring, or communicating with them. Stalking is a common theme in Greer’s writing—stalking directed not at Taylor Swift, but at him.
Greer’s closest brush with the spotlight came with the demise of his first lawsuit, when he was interviewed by a Salt Lake City Fox affiliate for an article blandly titled “Judge dismisses Utah man’s lawsuit against Taylor Swift.” Nonetheless, Greer sees the case as a landmark event and himself as a figure of roughly equal stature to Swift. His life, he writes, is plagued by constant public attention that is, well—invasive and troubling.
“Whispers followed me everywhere I went: in the store, on the public transit, in places I went to go eat at, anywhere. While it was normal, but not appreciated, for a passerby to gawk at me in public because of my face, I had an extra reason why people stared at me: I was ‘THAT GUY’ who had sued Taylor Swift. No matter where I went, I overheard: ‘There’s the guy who sued that one country turned pop star. What’s her name?’ On other occasions, I heard, ‘There’s Taylor Swift’s stalker.’ Sometimes, as I walked down the sidewalk, people would come up and take unwanted selfies with me.”
In other passages, Greer describes being shadowed by mysterious vehicles and confronted by mobs of militant Swifties. One supposed episode of persecution took place in a diner:
“Sitting at a table in the corner, an older man suddenly stood up, pointing at me and exclaimed, ‘He sued Taylor Swift!’ Another man stood up and said, ‘He’s extorting Taylor Swift to go on a date with him by suing her! I saw it all on the news!’ The diner patrons began talking amongst themselves about me. Sensing trouble, I quickly left the diner, but many of the patrons followed after me. ‘Hey, buddy!’ one of the businessmen yelled, following me. ‘You know you just committed a crime!’ I finally snapped. I turned back and faced him.
“‘No, you know what’s a crime?’ I said with anger. ‘Following people and harassing them and their families. Posting their information online. THAT is the crime.’
“‘I only understood half of what you just said,’ the businessman mocked me. ‘Duck lips.’
“‘Do you understand this?’ I said as I shoved him. Not realizing my own strength, I pushed the man over a fire hydrant, which caused him to trip and fall backwards onto the wet cement. The man looked so pathetic lying on the ground, red in the face. I closed my eyes, ashamed of what I had done. The entire Taylor Swift incident had destroyed my life.”
Questionable as these accounts may be, there is a grain of truth to Greer’s fear of being stalked. Greer has attracted a small but devoted fanbase of sorts: an online following that finds his antics perversely fascinating. A thread devoted to Greer on Kiwi Farms, a forum that documents the lives of notable eccentrics, currently runs 1,181 pages. It’s Kiwi Farms that has been responsible for indexing many of Greer’s most off-putting comments, including one memorable Facebook post in which Greer suggests that Swift’s “fat ass, pig faced” mother should die of cancer so Swift can learn proper empathy for the disabled.
The foremost expert on Greer’s legal misadventures is probably lawyer Nick Rekieta. Rekieta is, in his own way, also an unusual figure—splitting his time between his Minnesota practice and producing Lawsplaining the Interwebs, a YouTube show in which he offers off-the-cuff commentary on weird and topical legal issues, often while cradling a tasting glass of Maker’s Mark. Rekieta has returned to Greer v. Swift again and again, amusing viewers with his exasperation at Greer’s baffling legal maneuvers.
The LDS Business College’s paralegal program taught Greer how to write a motion properly, says Rekieta, but his arguments make vast leaps in logic and tend to ignore such niceties as the Bill of Rights.
“Russell is like a McDonald’s new hire calling himself a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant,” says Rekieta. “He’s got a basic understanding of some of the mechanics. He knows that, if you heat up meat, it’ll cook. He knows that, if you put fries in hot oil, they’ll cook. He can name the equipment, maybe. But, when it comes to actually making the dish, he falls apart.”
“Failure to warn”—of which Greer accuses Swift—usually applies to manufacturers of products that come with unavoidable hazards. There is, for instance, no known way to produce a lawnmower that is incapable of cutting an unwary user, hence the familiar yellow label reading: “DANGER: KEEP HANDS AND FEET AWAY FROM BLADES AT ALL TIMES.” A lawnmower manufacturer who doesn’t include something equivalent to that yellow label may find itself guilty of failure to warn when a customer loses a finger.
The problem with Greer’s case is that Swift makes songs, not lawnmowers. If Swift created a music video with heavy use of strobe effects and did not include a seizure warning, that might approach a failure to warn, says Rekieta, but it’s hard to imagine many other likely examples.
The other major obstacle to Greer’s case is the First Amendment. Restricting speech in the United States may be difficult, but compelling speech is an even harder sell. Were Greer to prevail in court, Swift would be forced to make disclaimers with every public utterance. Such a disclaimer might resemble the list of possible side effects reeled off at the end of a pharmaceutical advertisement.
In other words, every single tweet or Facebook post by Swift would have to come attached to a chunk of legalese along the lines of: “Taylor Swift, in producing this social media post, makes no warranties or promises or otherwise covenants to contact or realize or recognize any gifts or donations or public statements made by fans, paid personalities, other celebrities, or otherwise.”
Further hamstringing Greer’s arguments is the fact that it’s quite ordinary for celebrity musicians to refuse any kind of musical gift, as doing so could lay them bare to later claims of copyright infringement by the gift-giver.
Theoretically, Greer could keep suing Swift over and over, forever. The U.S. legal system robustly defends the right to sue. Rekieta raises the case of Ortman v. Thomas, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that, even for a person who’d made a habit of filing frivolous lawsuits, a complete ban from litigation would be too severe. Instead, softer restrictions are imposed. Were Greer to be deemed a vexatious litigant, he could be required to demonstrate to a judge that a lawsuit was not frivolous ahead of filing—effectively ending his campaign against Swift, without encroaching too much on his rights.
Greer v. Swift is not Greer’s first controversial suit. He previously sued Ariana Grande, among others, over alleged disability discrimination and attempted to compel the state of Utah to permit prostitution. Greer additionally supports making it a felony for a woman to turn down romantic advances by a disabled man, though he has yet to raise this particular issue in court.
“It’s a fuzzy situation because you have a strongly protected right to go to the courts for redress of grievances,” says Rekieta. “But, if the lawsuits are repeatedly frivolous, it would start to look like criminal harassment or stalking, and the courts really don’t like that.”
Rekieta believes that Swift would do well to file a restraining order or 50 against Greer, but it’s clear Rekieta holds no real hatred for the man. Despite the edgy and thoroughly un-woke tone of Lawsplaining the Interwebs, Rekieta makes a point of not poking fun at Greer’s disability or otherwise being too mean. Like many of Greer’s online followers, Rekieta seems to feel a certain queasy affection toward Greer and his so obviously futile love quest.
“I absolutely do not wish harm upon Russell Greer,” says Rekieta. “No way. I think he’s got some issues to work through. I think some of his views about what society and women owe him are a little repulsive. But I want him to keep being as public as possible in his personality. One, because, as long as he’s in the public eye, he’s probably not harming anyone. And, two, because it’s a good show.”