Judge dismisses Tribune, ABC4 from former GOP leader’s defamation suit

Judge Barry Lawrence ruled that the media outlets are protected by the Neutral Reporting Privilege — which defends outlets from libel claims when allegations are made against public figures.

Two Utah media outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, were dismissed Friday from a lawsuit alleging defamation.

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 county Republican Party. Robinson initially named more than 100 defendants — including Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Zions Bank president Scott Anderson — and sought, along with former party chairman Scott Miller, $100 million in damages.

Robinson’s lawsuit was later amended to list 11 defendants, and he is seeking an amount to be determined at trial, exceeding $60 million.

The judge’s dismissal of The Tribune and Nexstar Media — which owns television station ABC4 — now leaves nine defendants listed in the complaint, including Salt Lake County councilmember Aimee Winder Newton, Salt Lake County recorder candidate Erin Preston and state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, among others.

In March 2021, The Tribune reported that 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.

In his dismissal Friday, 3rd District Judge Barry Lawrence stated that all of the “alleged defamatory statements” printed by The Tribune were attributable to the women who were quoted, and that Robinson did not allege The Tribune provided additional commentary. Similarly, Lawrence also wrote that all “alleged defamatory” statements aired by Channel 4 were all attributable to the women cited.

“The Tribune article and the Channel 4 segment were reported fairly and in a disinterested manner; nothing in the [complaint] suggests that either Media Defendant adopted the allegations or in any way distorted their meaning,” Lawrence wrote in the ruling. “The statements attributed to the women involved were accurate as that term is used in [Edwards v. National Audubon Society], i.e., they were reported accurately, even though the underlying factual allegations might have been false.”

The article also details a “vast array of evidence” accumulated by The Tribune, Lawrence said, including text messages, emails and seven personal witness statements. The judge also cited two previous court rulings and the Neutral Reporting Privilege, which allows media outlets to report on the accusations against public figures without assuming responsibility for them.

The remaining claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress were also dismissed, because the claims “rely solely on the alleged defamatory statements published in the respective news stories,” Lawrence wrote.

“It’s unfortunate The Tribune was forced to shift its focus on fighting a court challenge,” Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus said in a statement Friday. “We prefer to stick to the work Utahns look to us for every day. And we are heartened by Judge Lawrence’s ruling, which affirms our right to report on important issues ‘without assuming responsibility for them’.”