ACLU Will Defend Five Sued for Libel By Football Coach in Ohio School Prayer Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
July 6, 1999 12:00 am

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LONDON, OH — The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today asked a Madison County court to dismiss a libel suit brought by a football coach against seven members of the community here who had criticized his religious activities in London High School athletics.

The libel action was brought by David Daubenmire, one of several school officials facing a separate but related ACLU lawsuit seeking to end religious indoctrination at the school.

ACLU Legal Director Raymond Vasvari said that libel suits targeted at outspoken critics of government are a serious threat to First Amendment freedoms.

“Suits against members of the public who weigh in on controversial issues go against the grain of the American system by intimidating concerned citizens into silence,” he said.

“Our clients engaged in nothing more than legitimate criticism of government officials and employees,” Vasvari added. “That is their right as Americans, and the ACLU is committed to seeing that they will not suffer for having exercised that right.”

Such retaliatory lawsuits, known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs, can be quickly dismissed if a court determines that were filed to stifle a person’s exercise of their First Amendment petition and free speech rights.

Hours after Daubenmire filed his libel lawsuit against the seven on June 3, the ACLU offered to represent five of the defendants. The two other individuals named as defendants are former school employees and are not being represented by the ACLU.

In its case against Daubenmire and other school officials, the ACLU has charged that the coach crossed the line between church and state by conducting mandatory prayer sessions, pressuring students to join his local church, and delivering lengthy religious sermons to students.

Some of the more exotic conduct, the ACLU charged, included coaches speaking in tongues and laying their hands on injured athletes in an attempt at spiritual healing.

ACLU Legal Director Vasvari is representing the five defendants, Robert Sommers, Rodney Bennet, James Roddy, Charles Spinning and Pam Wassmuth. The other two defendants, Steve Allen and Vicijean Geer, are represented by attorneys in private practice.

The ACLU’s news release about the lawsuit against Coach Daubenmire and officials of the London City School District is online at /news/1999/n062899c.html.

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