ACLU Defends Political Activist in Defamation Lawsuit Filed by Rhode Island Politician

November 27, 2006 12:00 am

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Lawsuit Was Attempt to Silence Public Criticism, ACLU Says

PROVIDENCE, RI – Citing important free speech concerns, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a response and counter-claim on behalf of Jonathan Daly-LaBelle, a South Kingstown resident who was sued for defamation by a political candidate a day before this month’s elections. The candidate, Andrew Bilodeau, alleged that Daly-LaBelle defamed him and violated state campaign finance laws by distributing a flier that was critical of Bilodeau’s campaign.

The response filed today by ACLU of Rhode Island volunteer attorney Karen Davidson asked the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that it was “brought with an intent to harass Daly-LaBelle and otherwise inhibit his exercise” of First Amendment rights. The ACLU further asked that Daly-LaBelle be awarded compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees as authorized by the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, refers to lawsuits brought to chill people from exercising their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.

“Mr. Bilodeau’s lawsuit was a clear effort to deter Mr. Daly-LaBelle from engaging in constitutionally protected political speech in a hotly-contested election,” said Davidson. “The SLAPP suit statute was enacted to prohibit precisely this type of litigation, and we are hopeful for a quick dismissal of the suit.”

Daly-LaBelle said he relied on an accurate newspaper report from October when he produced the fliers to distribute on November 4. The fliers state that “Bilodeau claimed no expenses on his state-required campaign finance report, despite numerous ads and literature put out by his campaign – undercutting his campaign theme of fiscal responsibility and open government.” According to news reports, Bilodeau had not listed any expenses on his October campaign finance report, although he subsequently filed an amended report shortly before the election. Bilodeau’s suit initially claimed that the flier violated campaign finance laws, and sought to bar Daly-LaBelle from continuing to hand out copies, but a judge denied that request.

“I believe that the comments I made are accurate and that this lawsuit is an attempt to intimidate me from speaking out on political issues,” Daly-LaBelle said. “I have a right to express my disagreement with political candidates.”

Concerned about the use of SLAPP suits to try to stifle public debate on a variety of issues, the ACLU of Rhode Island has succeeded in getting a number of similar suits dismissed since an anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995. In the first such case handled by the ACLU, the state Supreme Court ordered dismissal of a defamation suit brought against North Kingstown resident Nancy Hsu Fleming for critical statements she made about a private landfill. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU also helped the South Kingstown Neighborhood Congress in a lawsuit filed against it for public comments its members made against a local developer’s activities.

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