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Dispute within homeowners' association is public controversy

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  1. Libel and Privacy
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Dispute within homeowners' association is public controversy

  • The Supreme Court of Wyoming ruled that a disagreement among private homeowners' association members was a public controversy and that an association manager is a limited public figure for purposes of his libel lawsuit.

Jan. 3, 2005 — The manager of a private homeowners' association is a limited public figure and in order to win a libel suit must prove that allegedly defamatory statements were made with actual malice, the Supreme Court of Wyoming ruled last month. In its ruling, the court found that although it received no news media coverage, an internal association dispute was a public controversy.

The disagreement arose in March 2000 over the management of the Star Valley Ranch Association in Star Valley, Wyoming. A group calling itself The Committee for Honesty and Justice at Star Valley Ranch began circulating bulletins among the members of the association criticizing Kenneth Martin and accusing him of engaging in "dirty politics" in the firing of the previous general manager.

In February 2002, Martin sued the committee for defamation. The trial court dismissed the suit, finding that the dispute over the association management was a public controversy and Martin was a limited public figure for purposes of the dispute. Even if the committee's statements were false, the court found that Martin could not prove that the committee knew or recklessly disregarded that the statements were false — the threshold for winning defamation cases against public figures.

Martin appealed, and in November, the Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the trial court's decision.

"There is no question that the dispute at issue here had ramifications for persons who were not direct participants in it. There are about two thousand lot owners in Star Valley Ranch," wrote Chief Justice William U. Hill for the unanimous five-member court. "The dispute at issue here was, at its essence, a political one."

The court also dismissed Martin's argument that the controversy was not public because there had been no outside media coverage.

"While media coverage may be a relevant factor in determining that a particular dispute is a public controversy, it is not determinative," Hill wrote.

(Martin v. Committee for Honesty and Justice at Star Valley Ranch)GP


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