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'Burwash' article by Mayor Winder not defamatory, judge told

Published August 31, 2012 10:41 pm

Media • Attorneys argue over critical article published under false name.
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An attorney for the publishing and broadcasting arm of the Mormon Church argued Friday it should be dismissed from a defamation lawsuit related to an article authored under a false name by the mayor of West Valley City.

Jeff Hunt, an attorney for Deseret Digital Media, told a federal judge that the article under the name "Richard Burwash" — but really written by West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder — was based on court records and, therefore, did not defame a former executive with the municipal-owned UTOPIA fiber-optic network.

Chris Hogan claims in a lawsuit that the article published on KSL.com could be read as saying he had been accused of the crime of extortion.

Winder used the name to write the Hogan article and ones that cast West Valley City in a good light. They were submitted via Deseret Connect, a outlet for freelance writers to contribute to KSL and the Deseret News newspaper, the Mormon Times and LDS Church News as part of an effort to publish articles from citizens who are not professional journalists.

Hunt said that the extortion accusation had been contained in court papers as part of lawsuits between Hogan and UTOPIA over his dismissal. As such, it is "privileged" because laws say a publication cannot be found to have defamed someone for reporting information from court documents, he said.

In addition, the attorney said the article did not say that Hogan was facing a criminal charge of extortion and that the context made clear the accusation was part of a heated legal dispute between Hogan and UTOPIA.

"Mr. Hogan has simply failed to plead facts that establish a defamation claim," Hunt told U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart.

But Hogan's attorney, Steve Christensen, said the story could be found to be defamatory if a "reasonable minority" of readers could falsely conclude that Hogan had been charged with criminal extortion. The reputation of Deseret Digital Media outlets led credibility to the article, even though it was published under a false name, he said.

"The reader doesn't know," Christensen said. "The reader assumes this was written for a reputable newspaper and he's reporting a fact."

Stewart said he would rule soon on the motion.

Other defendants in the suit include UTOPIA, West Valley City and The Summit Group, a public relations firm where Winder was employed at the time he wrote the article and others about West Valley City.

tharvey@sltrib.com

Twitter: @TomHarveySltrib