1st Circuit dismisses candidate’s defamation suit

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Recognizing that “[c]ampaigning for public office sometimes has the feel of a contact sport,” the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 10 in Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Committee affirmed the dismissal of a defamation action brought by an unsuccessful political candidate against a group advertising against him.

In 2010, James Schatz, a Democrat, was running for a seat in the Maine Senate. In the days leading up to the election, the Republican State Leadership Committee of Alexandria, Va., hit Schatz with an advertising blitz that included fliers, brochures and radio and television spots. In the ads, the RSLC attacked Schatz for votes he allegedly made as a selectman for the town of Blue Hill.

According to the ads, Schatz and the Blue Hill selectmen gave $10,000 of taxpayer money to a political organization and then, citing a lack of funds, voted to cancel the town’s $10,000 Fourth of July fireworks celebration.

“It’s wrong for Schatz to give your money to a political organization, and it was wrong for Schatz to cancel your 4th of July celebration,” the fliers read. “On November 2, Vote against Jim Schatz, because he’s wrong for Maine.”

In the fliers, the RSLC cited articles in two local newspapers as support for its statements.

In his suit against the RSLC, Schatz claimed the advertisements falsely accused him of stealing public funds. He further alleged that the RSLC had acted with actual malice, stating that the RSLC knew the cited articles were incorrect and faulting the organization for not double-checking the articles’ accuracy.

After analyzing the articles, however, the appellate court found that they generally supported the RSLC’s claims. Though acknowledging that RSLC’s ads did not fully explain either the donation to the political organization (which was made in support of repealing Maine’s school district consolidation law) or the decision not to fund the fireworks, and that no obvious link existed between the two decisions, the court held that this potential unfairness did not rise to the level of actual malice, especially in the heat of a political campaign.

“[D]efamation law does not require that combatants for public office act like war-time neutrals, treating everyone evenhandedly and always taking the high road,” the court wrote. “Quite the contrary. Provided that they do not act with actual malice, they can badmouth their opponents, hammering them with unfair and one-sided attacks — remember, speaking out on political issues, especially criticizing public officials and hopefuls for public office, is a core freedom protected by the First Amendment … . And absent actual malice, more speech, not damages, is the right strike-back against superheated or false rhetoric.”

Republican Brian Langley won the election.

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