The Supreme Court of Texas has been asked to weigh in on an issue involving a defamation lawsuit filed by Parker County-based WallBuilders’ founder David Barton against two former Texas State Board of Education candidates.
Judy A. Jennings and Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Democratic candidates for the SBOE in 2010, asked that the suit be dismissed under a new Texas law intended to protect against lawsuits attempting to silence free speech, or “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”
It’s the first time an appeals court has interpreted how the new state law works, Julie Ford, an attorney for Jennings and Bell-Metereau, told the Democrat.
“We’re hoping that the supreme court can give us some guidance on how this new statute works,” Ford said.
“Defendants across the state are relying on this new statute,” attorneys for Jennings and Bell-Metereau stated in the petition filed last week requesting the state’s highest court look at the issue. “The question of whether appellate protections are available when a person is sued for exercising their constitutional rights ‘to petition, speak freely, associate freely and otherwise participate in government’ is one of such importance that it should be decided by this court.”
Though the First Amendment protecting free speech does set up a high burden for those suing for libel, but the new law attempts to weed out cases without merit before money is spent on lawyers, as well as protect those with meritorious cases, Ford said.
It’s a far-reaching law with a lot of protections, according to Ford.
If a motion is filed within 60 days, the law, which took affect in June 2011, allows the judge to dismiss a frivolous case.
In February, Judge Graham Quisenberry of the 415th District Court denied the motion to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP law and Jennings and Bell-Metereau appealed his decision to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
The Fort Worth court dismissed the appeal on Aug. 16, finding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal based on the law’s wording.
Attorneys for Jennings and Bell-Metereau have asked the state’s highest court to hear the issue, arguing that the legislature never intended to deny the opportunity of appeal.
Barton, who founded WallBuilders to educate the nation “concerning the Godly foundation of our country,” to provide information to government officials and to encourage Christian to be civically engaged, is suing the two educators and former candidates, alleging they defamed him and his company, causing a loss of business.
A Jennings and Bell-Metereau campaign video published on YouTube in September 2010 describes some former board of education members as extremists attempting to take truth from public school textbooks and David Barton, a policy adviser to some members, as “known for speaking at white-supremacist rallies.”
The video appears to reference a couple of Barton’s speaking engagements in 1991 to groups linked to the Christian Identity movement that later made the news.
Barton said in court filings that he was not aware of the groups’ ideology at the time and has not spoken to such groups since. He is alleging Jennings and Bell-Metereau have falsely painted him as a white supremacist sympathizer and liar.
The suit seeks unspecified damages from the defendants for allegedly exposing Barton and WallBuilders to “public hatred, contempt, ridicule, financial injury and impeaching [Barton’s] honesty, integrity and virtue.”
Jennings and Bell-Metereau believed what was said in the video was true, Ford said, adding that whether the statements were true or not would be something that would come out in a trial court.
If the women thought the statements were true, they should not have been sued, according to Ford.
Last year, Bell-Metereau characterized the suit as “frivolous” and speculated that Barton may be trying to intimidate people from running for office.
Her clients don’t have a lot of money and litigation is expensive, Ford said.
Voicemail messages left Friday with attorneys at the firm representing Barton were not returned by deadline.
The WallBuilders case isn’t the only high profile Parker County case that has been similarly affected by the Fort Worth court of appeals’ interpretation of the new anti-SLAPP law.
Attorneys for the Steven and Shyla Lipsky, accused in a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by Range Resources of conspiring to defame the company after the Lipskys filed a lawsuit accusing the company of contaminating their water well, also filed a similar motion in the 43rd District Court asking Judge Trey Loftin to dismiss Range’s case under the anti-SLAPP law. Loftin denied the motion.
The Lipskys also took the issue to the court of appeals and, a week after the court of appeals ruling in the Wallbuilders case, the appeal was dismissed based on the same reasoning.