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First Circuit rejects politician's libel claim

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A former candidate for the Maine State Senate could not show that negative advertisements about him by an out-of-state Republican…

A former candidate for the Maine State Senate could not show that negative advertisements about him by an out-of-state Republican organization, unaffiliated with his opponent, contained false statements that were made intentionally or with reckless disregard for their falsity, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) ruled earlier this month.

James Schatz, a former Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives and Selectman for the town of Blue Hill who had lost an election for a seat on the Maine Senate, sued a number of Republican-oriented organizations and individuals. He alleged that they had run a number of advertisements and distributed flyers and brochures which falsely implied that he had given $10,000 of public money to one of his political organizations — money that had in the past been used to finance a Fourth of July fireworks display in Hancock County, the court wrote.

Citing two newspaper articles, one in the Bangor Daily News and another in the Kennebec Journal, flyers run by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) suggested that Schatz had improperly given the fireworks money to a political campaign associated with him, according to Barry Mills, who represents the former candidate.

"We have always maintained that this was a frivolous lawsuit brought by a disappointed candidate," said Adam Temple, of the RSLC.

One of the allegedly libelous flyers, as reproduced in the Court of Appeals' opinion, said: "Jim Schatz voted to cancel the $10,000 fireworks celebration for the Fourth of July — blaming it on a bad economy. However, before cancelling the show, Schatz and the Blue Hill Selectmen gave 10,000 taxpayer dollars to a political organization. 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 Bangor Daily News article cited by the flyer quoted Schatz as saying "Given the economy, we felt that in good conscience we couldn't do [the fireworks display] this year."

Mills said that, in fact, Schatz had voted against cancelling the display; he was merely speaking generally.

The Kennebec Journal article, in turn, discussed a political campaign to repeal Maine's school district consolidation law. That article — also reproduced in relevant part in the court's opinion — discussed the Maine Coalition to Save Schools' efforts to gather donations from municipalities to lobby the legislature on that issue. That article stated that Blue Hill had made a series of donations to the campaign totaling $10,000.

Maine municipalities are legally allowed to expend public dollars for political purposes, but only to the extent that funds are authorized by voters at a town meeting, according to the opinion. In this case, Schatz and the other Blue Hill selectmen had been granted discretion by the voters to decide whether to make a donation, the court wrote. Schatz argued that, given that rule, it was more accurate to say that the voters had authorized that expenditure, despite the fact that the Selectman exercised discretion.

The Kennebec article explained that, while these donations were legal, they are nonetheless considered inappropriate by some people.

Schatz's complaint had alleged that the RSLC had essentially "branded him a criminal," as the court put it, wrongly suggesting that he had diverted the $10,000 from the fireworks fund to a political cause.

Comparing the campaign ads to the newspaper articles, the court found that the RSLC's ads "synced up" with the newspaper stories, and that Schatz could not show that the RSLC either knew their statements were false or had serious doubts about their reliability.

"The RSLC rightly relied on accounts of the candidate's record from the Bangor Daily News and the Kennebec Journal that were in the public domain for more than a year without refutation. We were pleased that the Court of Appeals agreed that what the RSLC stated in its flyers was consistent with the news reports that it was entitled to rely upon," Temple said.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Digital Journalist's Legal Guide — Defining "actual malice"