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Montana radio host ordered to pay $3.8 million in slander verdict

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A Montana radio host on Wednesday was slapped with a $3.8 million slander verdict. John Stokes, the owner and host of…

A Montana radio host on Wednesday was slapped with a $3.8 million slander verdict.

John Stokes, the owner and host of the KGEZ AM radio station in Kalispell, was sued by a father and son who alleged he made defamatory remarks about them on his radio show last year.  

According to a local newspaper, the Flathead Beacon, Stokes said on the air that Davar Gardner and his son Todd had lied under oath and submitted a false affidavit during previous litigation with Stokes. He also said the Gardners had committed bank fraud.  

A jury in Flathead County District Court decided on Wednesday that Stokes’s comments were defamatory and awarded the Gardners $3.8 million in compensatory and punitive damages, an amount that is one of the largest in Montana history.  

"This should scare everybody in the media," Stokes said. "This is a message that [journalists] have lost their rights to report freely or editorialize about powerful individuals."

Stokes’s feud with the Gardners goes back to a lawsuit in 2000, in which Stokes and the Gardners disagreed over the ownership of a parcel of land. Stokes has held a right to put his radio towers on the Gardners’ land since 1949. His radio towers and the wiring that runs underground took up 160 feet. But the Gardners filed a lawsuit to reduce the amount of land Stokes was able to use, and now Stokes can only use about 30 acres. 

The Gardners won that suit, and according to the Flathead Beacon, Stokes has been critical of the Gardners on his radio show ever since. But Stokes said he was commenting on information he learned in the court case, and he says he has documents to back up his statements.

Now, with a $3.8 million judgment to pay, Stokes isn’t sure what will happen. He is worried about going bankrupt and losing the radio station he’s owned since 2000. But he won’t give up without a fight, he said. He plans on asking for a mistrial.

Stokes is an unpopular voice to many Montanans. He’s been criticized by local residents as being anti-environmentalist and anti-Semitic; last year he was ordered by a court to remove swastika signs from his yard.  A group of locals even created a Web site describing how they believe Stokes is threatening the local community. But Stokes believes in his right to exercise his free speech on his radio show.

Asked if this multi-million dollar judgment will change the way he conducts his show, Stokes said: "Not one bit."