The other day, when I opined on defamation law and the vindictive and authoritarian way some establishment types would like to see it used to rein in bloggers like me, one of the examples I used was that of my friend Carla and the way she infuriated the pusillanimous pantywaists that patrol the comment threads at Blue Oregon. Carla had merely suggested, after laying out supporting evidence, that “it’s my belief” that a well known lobbyist was involved in feeding negative stories to the press, and it was for this act of subjective speculation that a handful of trolls relentlessly warned her about crossing a line that could lead to financial ruin.
In truth, they didn’t just warn Carla, they gloated over the notion that she might be dragged into court on defamation charges. It was, at least for some of the trolls, an attempt at intimidation, pure and simple. It was also laughable, as proven once again this week by a real life defamation suit in which a jury determined that even honest to God false statements didn’t rise to the very high standard needed to prove defamation under U.S. law.
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Jane Hague’s 2007 re-election campaign made a false statement about a supporter of her opponent but didn’t defame him, a jury has determined.
A King County Superior Court jury decided Aug. 28 that Hague doesn’t owe damages to Bellevue electrician Paul Brecht because a flier mailed by her campaign didn’t meet the legal standard for defamation.
Although the flier erroneously said Brecht had “at least one assault conviction,” the jury determined Hague and her campaign consultants either didn’t know the statement was false or didn’t act with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true or false.
A judge ruled earlier that Brecht’s public support for County Council candidate Richard Pope made him a public figure in the case, requiring that he prove defamation under a higher standard than is required for other citizens.
“I would characterize it as an overwhelming victory for the defendants,” Hague attorney Scott Ellerby told the press, apparently celebrating his client’s right to use baseless lies to impugn the reputation of an opponent’s supporters. But, you know, that’s the way our defamation laws work. As Erica explains over at Publicola:
[A]lthough the jury did determine that Hague had defamed the supporter, Paul Brecht, it did not rule that she had made the false statements [in] actual malice or “reckless disregard” for the truth, and so did not require her to pay compensation. Brecht had to meet a higher-than-usual standard to prove defamation because he was determined to be a “public figure” for the purposes of the campaign—in part because, as a 2008 deposition makes clear, he frequently defended Pope in the comments on political web sites and was interviewed about the campaign on KING5 and KUOW.
Participating in comment threads makes one a public figure? That’s a high standard indeed. As it should be.