First Amendment is grounds for dismissal of GOP leader’s defamation suit, Tribune attorney says

Counsel representing local media outlets, political leaders and others argued their statements were either protected or non-defamatory opinions.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) David Robinson, who previously served as the Salt Lake County Republican party's communication director, was accused by more than a half dozen women of harassment, name-calling, body shaming and other inappropriate behavior.

A judge heard a motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging defamation on behalf of The Tribune and others Wednesday, but made no ruling.

Former Salt Lake County GOP communications director David Robinson filed the suit in January 2022, alleging there was a coordinated campaign to remove him from his role in the Republican party. Robinson intially named more than 100 defendants — including Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Zions Bank Scott Anderson — and sought, along with former party chairman Scott Miller, $100 million in damages.

Robinson’s lawsuit has been amended and now includes just 11 defendants and he is seeking an amount to be determined at trial, exceeding $60 million.

In March 2021, The Tribune reported more than half a dozen Republican women said they experienced a toxic environment within the Salt Lake County GOP. The women accused Robinson, the party’s former volunteer communications director, of harassment, body shaming and other inappropriate behavior. They also said Scott Miller dismissed their complaints.

The defendants in the amended complaint include The Salt Lake Tribune; Nexstar Media, which owns television station ABC4; Salt Lake County council members Aimee Winder Newton and Laurie Stringham; former Salt Lake County recorder candidate Erin Preston and Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, among others.

“I know this is an issue of public interest,” Third District Court Judge Barry Lawrence said Wednesday. “We have, for lack of a better term, a dustup in the Republican Party, a political party. We had seven people come forward and made claims against (Robinson). I have to assume today that those claims are false, for the purposes of today.”

Lawrence divided Wednesday’s hearing into three groups: media outlets, the state and all other defendants. Political leaders and journalists outlets have different privileges than the other individuals named in the suit.

Media arguments

Mike Judd, an attorney with Parsons Behle & Latimer representing The Tribune, said Miller released a letter describing the allegations against Robinson before the Tribune’s article was published. That same morning, Gov. Cox and Lt. Gov Henderson held a news conference discussing the letter’s allegations, Judd said.

“By the time (The) Tribune’s letter article ran, this was no doubt a public controversy,” Judd said. “If the First Amendment protects any kind of reporting at all, it’s this. It’s clear, accurate reporting about a battle for control of a county party in the midst of an election cycle. This is what The Tribune is born to do.”

Judd argued the First Amendment’s neutral reporting privilege allowed the Tribune to report on the controversy. This privilege states journalists are immune from suits from prominent figures when reporting accurately on serious charges brought against them by a set of accusers, Judd said.

Judd continued on to say Robinson is a prominent figure in a “general sense,” since he is “deeply enmeshed in Utah GOP politics.”

But even his status as a political public figure does not affect that privilege, Judd said. He cited an unpublished ruling from the Utah Court of Appeals in 2000, where the court stated someone’s status as a public figure “doesn’t matter,” since The Tribune accurately reported on recorded matters that were “in a much smaller way than this case” a matter of public concern.

“So often, The Tribune writes articles summarizing debates talking about mudslinging between political figures — those so rarely actually result in defamation lawsuits like this one,” Judd said. “Another reason that the court may see the neutral reporting privilege come up rarely, is because oftentimes, an article entity like The Salt Lake Tribune can fall back into the actual truth of its reporting, which is that there was not a word in that news story that is inaccurate.”

State and county arguments

When the hearing shifted to state defendants, Lawrence said his concern was that he believed members of a political party should be able to comment on conflicts within their party without fear of reprisal. He then asked the state’s counsel whether this fits into a “nice, tidy” legal privilege.

Joni Jones, an attorney representing the state’s defendants — including Thatcher; Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, and others — argued the state defendants’ statements were non-defamatory opinions. Another attorney representing Abby Evans, who serves as county councilmember Laurie Stringham’s policy adviser, said the same.

Jones stated that a portion of the state code also protects statement made in “the proper discharge of an official duty.” This statute applies to members of local legislative bodies, Jones said, and includes press releases about matters of public interest related to an official’s office.

Lawrence asked to what extent this applies to social media posts, or statements made on a podcast.

“Over the years, our country has developed a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open and that it may well include vehement caustically, sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” Jones cited from a 2019 Utah Ruling in Davidson v. Baird, which also cites a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Sullivan v. New York Times.

“In the course of such robust debates on issues of public concern, it is inevitable that on occasion statements are made that are not completely accurate,” she continued. “Such occasional false statements are the price we pay for an open democracy and must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need to survive.”

Jones continued to argue Robinson has not proven any malice was made in the state defendants’ statements. The 1964 Sullivan decision ruled that plaintiffs must show that defendants had malice in making an allegedly defamatory statement — meaning a defendant knew statement was false or had “reckless disregard” for its falsity.

Other arguments

Erin Preston, an attorney who previously ran for Salt Lake County recorder, represented herself at Wednesday’s hearing. Preston is one of the seven women who accused Robinson of harassment, and previously stated she’d heard Robinson call women in the party “slut,” “fatty” and “sloppy seconds.”

“I was an individual who comments were made to by Mr. Robinson,” Preston said. “He managed my campaign as a delegate of the party. By their own admission, he controlled my website. He wrote op-eds in my name. He tried to control media sources who I couldn’t go to, he wrote things I objected to. When I complained, I was immediately directed to go back to him and not do anything without his ‘OK.’”

Preston said her response to Robinson’s comments was that she needed “Robinson away from my campaign and out of my life,” citing a text she sent to Miller. She argued her comments that were cited in the complaint were opinion.

“I did not want to do damage to him, to the party to anyone else. I had no malice. I had no intent to do harm,” Preston continued. “I know that it’s my First Amendment right to express my opinion, especially on matters of public concern. As I learned the statements against so many others, I began to see this as a matter of concern of public concern.”

Lawrence took the attorneys’ arguments under advisement. He said he would likely make the defendants’ decisions “piecemeal.”