Democratic consultant sues GOP blogger for defamation

Thursday, January 5, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — A Democratic public-relations consultant is suing a Republican blogger for defamation in a case that could offer a key test of the First Amendment rights of bloggers.

The lawsuit pits Blois Olson, the president of PR firm New School Communications and a well-known Democratic political commentator, against Michael Brodkorb, a Republican operative who publishes the blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed.

In the lawsuit, which will be filed in Dakota County District Court, Olson disputes a series of postings by Brodkorb last week about criticisms Olson made of the congressional campaign of fellow Democrat Coleen Rowley. Brodkorb wrote that an anonymous source told him that the Rowley campaign refused to hire New School Communications for public-relations consulting work, prompting Brodkorb to ask why Olson didn’t disclose that when he criticized Rowley in several news stories publicized by New School.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the lawsuit will allege that Brodkorb “defamed the St. Paul-based public relations firm New School Communications when he posted a claim that New School had become publicly critical of the congressional campaign of Coleen Rowley only after Rowley rejected a contract with the firm.”

“That is false, that is a lie, that is defamation,” Steve Silton, Olson’s attorney, said yesterday of claims that New School tried to get consulting work with the Rowley campaign.

Silton said Olson and New School have not sought or performed campaign work since 1998. Olson is co-publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter, and is a regular commentator on KTCA’s “Almanac” and WCCO-AM.

The lawsuit asks for $50,000 in damages, and demands that Brodkorb retract the postings about Olson.

Brodkorb said yesterday that he stood by what he reported and would’t retract it, and that he would fight the lawsuit. Though he presented what he reported as facts, he also said it was political speech that should be protected by the First Amendment.

“It’s pretty clear it’s political,” Brodkorb said. “I’m writing a blog called Minnesota Democrats Exposed. Blois is in my opinion a public figure, he’s in the political arena.”

Brodkorb, 32, has operated the blog since July 2004 — but up until yesterday, he did so anonymously. He decided to out himself because of Olson’s lawsuit.

Until last June, Brodkorb also worked for the state Republican Party, most recently as director of communications and research. He said none of his supervisors knew of his blogging, and that he never used party resources to fund his blog or to provide it with information.

Brodkorb is now a freelance consultant doing opposition research for political candidates, and said he also keeps that work separate from his blogging.

Rowley’s campaign manager, Joe Elcock, said yesterday that Buck Humphrey, a New School employee, did approach the Rowley campaign last June seeking consulting work. Silton said if that’s the case, Humphrey did so as a free agent and not on behalf of New School, and that Olson was unaware of it.

Humphrey was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Olson declined to speak on the record about the lawsuit, and referred questions to Silton.

The lawsuit raises a myriad of questions about how the law will view bloggers who report news on their sites, said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota professor who teaches media ethics and media law.

Kirtley said Brodkorb will likely have to decide if what he presented is reporting or opinion.

“If what you’re doing is expressing your opinion, that’s classic political speech,” Kirtley said. “It’s going to be protected.” But, she said, “If you present factual statements that are untrue that you demonstrably know to be untrue, that’s actual malice, and that’s going to undercut any broad protections.”

In other cases dealing with bloggers and free speech, Kirtley said, courts have given bloggers more leeway than what has been provided for mainstream news outlets. But the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to take up any such case — “There’s a lot of fascinating questions still to be asked. Taking on bloggers is a very complex area right now.”

Brodkorb has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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