Judge rejects lawsuit over Lowell recall.
Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard
Correction (published April 3, 2014): Attorney David Bahr argued that former Lowell City Councilor Pam Bryant's lawsuit, filed against opponents in a recall election, should go forward because it had met the low threshold necessary to proceed against a claim filed under a state law used to block suits involving matters of public debate. Bahr did not argue that standard defamation law applied to the case. A City/Region story Tuesday incorrectly stated Bahr's position in representing Bryant.
A judge has tossed out a lawsuit filed by a former Lowell city councilor accusing political opponents of spreading lies about her in a recall campaign.
Lane County Circuit Judge Charles Carlson on Monday agreed with defendants that the suit should be dismissed under a state law that protects people from legal action when commenting on matters of public debate or taking part in civic affairs. Carlson said the suit did not present enough evidence to overcome the barriers to such action.
The case stemmed from a successful recall campaign mounted last year against Pam Bryant, who had been serving on the Lowell City Council. In her suit, Bryant claimed members of the recall committee made a number of false statements about her and accused them of violating the Oregon Corrupt Practices Act.
Bryant named the Recall for Lowell's Future Committee and two of its members, Kenneth Hern and Nancy Garratt, as defendants in the suit. They challenged the suit under a state law designed to discourage what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits.
David Bahr, Bryant's attorney, said Monday that he respectfully disagrees with Carlson's decision. He said he will consult with his client before deciding whether to appeal the ruling.
In the ruling, Carlson said lawsuits brought over political speech have to be reviewed under a higher standard than ordinary defamation cases. He said previous decisions by higher courts in Oregon have held that courts should move with caution in such cases.
In essence, the courts have held that as long as statements made in political campaigns could in any way be seen as true or as simply expressing an opinion, they are not subject to legal challenge. Under that standard, Carlson said Bryant's suit could not proceed.
Carlson said the ruling wasn't meant to imply that he found the committee's statements well-founded or that they couldn't have led people to believe something that wasn't true. But he said the statements, seen in context, "all could give rise to a reasonable inference of a correct fact or a mere expression of opinion" and therefore were not enough to justify a lawsuit.
Bahr had urged the judge to analyze the case under the standard law of defamation. Under that standard, he said the law requires only that his client present credible evidence that recall supporters made false statements.
In court filings, Bahr listed seven statements made by Hern, Garratt and the Recall for Lowell's Future Committee that he claims were demonstrably false. The statements relate to events involving Bryant's interactions with the city staff, her activities at City Council meetings and other political activity.
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