29 August 2005

Colorado Court Rules For Press Freedom

Colorado's Court of Appeals has ruled in a case with an unusual posture, that the press is privileged to report statements made in the context of local government board proceedings without fear of liability for publishing possibly defamatory statements made in the course of the meetings. The party suing for defamation lost and was forced to pay attorneys' fees incurred as a result of his suit.

Usually, cases like this involve a party interested in the deliberation suing a witness who testifies at the government meeting for defamation. This is called a SLAPP for "strategic lawsuit against public participation". These suits usually lose in court, but the threat of them often chills speech before public officials. And, it is likely that concerns about SLAPPs motivated the appellate panel in how it viewed the case. But, this case was different.

In this case, a public participant sued a special district board of directors for defaming him, when he admitted to evesdropping on an executive session of the board in a letter to the editor of the local paper. They said he misstated what happened in the executive session and was committing a crime by evesdropping. He also sued the local newspaper (which published his own letter to the editor) for publishing a board member's response made during the meeting. Without resorting to Yiddish, the phrase that best describes the participant's decision to bring suit is: "What Nerve." (Several board members were dismissed from the suit because they didn't say or purport to say anything, the one who actually spoke was dismissed based on the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act's protections).

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