Recalled official's lawsuit against Gladstone petitioners fails
Recently recalled City Councilor Kim Sieckmann's lawsuit against three of last year's recall petitioners has been dismissed.
Sieckmann's lawsuit was against Gladstone City Councilor Neal Reisner, chief petitioner Bill Osburn, and Greg Alexander, all three of whom helped circulate petitions to force a recall vote against Sieckmann and Steve Johnson.
More than 55 percent of Gladstone voters chose to oust the officials in a May 2017 special election.
Sieckmann's attorney claimed the petitioners had knowingly spread false information about Sieckmann during the recall effort. However, there's a high bar for public figures to sue people for defamation under U.S. law.
"As a rule, when a person falsely defames a public figure as a public figure, that public figure has no claim for defamation," wrote Clackamas County Circuit Pro-tem Judge Eric J. Tait in an Aug. 29 decision.
Tait said an exception exists to that rule if there's "clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statement was false or acted in "reckless disregard" of its truth.
"There is a substantial evidence that each of the statements are merely opinions and/or are true and thus are not actionable as defamatory," Tate wrote. "Further, there is no substantial evidence to establish [Sieckmann] could prove the defendants knew the statements were false or acted in 'reckless disregard' of their truth."
Sieckmann had asked each of the petitioners for $10,000 by May 12 to avoid a threatened lawsuit that Sieckmann's attorney claimed would result in a judgment of more than $50,000 for the alleged libel. The petitioners refused to pay the $10,000 each, saying their activities were protected under the First Amendment and the Oregon Constitution's additional protections for allowing citizens the right to recall elected officials.
Osburn said the lawsuit was an attempt by the City Council majority to intimidate citizens and prevent another recall effort. He was disappointed that anyone would sue citizens for criticizing their government, but he was heartened to receive the judge's dismissal letter.
"It's a victory for free speech and for our U.S. and Oregon constitutional rights," Osburn said. "Things worked the way they should have this time, fortunately."
Sieckmann said he was disappointed with the judge's ruling and did not believe it was correctly decided.
"Mr. Osburn, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Reisner should not be allowed to purposefully spread false information to the Gladstone public as fact, and when challenged in court claim it to be their opinions — either about me or anyone else they may target — and not be held to account for it," Sieckmann said.
Sieckmann has the option to appeal the judge's decision, while the petitioners plan to recover their legal fees under an Oregon statute against "strategic lawsuits against public participation." SLAPP lawsuits are intended to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their opposition.
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