Hit with a developer’s $19.2 million libel suit, this small Utah newspaper is fighting back

Citing a new state law aimed at deterring abusive lawsuits that silence free speech, the Millard County Chronicle Progress asked a judge to dismiss Wayne Aston’s lawsuit.

A rural Utah newspaper is fighting back against a libel lawsuit filed by a Utah land developer, asking a judge to dismiss the case and arguing that it was filed in an effort to silence reporters through a prolonged and expensive legal battle.

Wayne Aston, who founded American Spec Industries, sued the Millard County Chronicle Progress in December, alleging the small newspaper had defamed him in five articles that raised questions about his business investments and his plans to build a $280 million manufacturing plant in Fillmore.

He is seeking more than $19 million in damages, alleging the articles harmed his business by causing readers to “distrust, hate and despise” him and his company and that the negative press caused several lenders to reject his loan applications.

Attorneys for the Chronicle Progress filed a motion earlier this month asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit under a new law called the “Uniform Public Expression Protection Act.” The 2023 legislation strengthened previous state law that attempts to deter abusive lawsuits — known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” or “SLAPPs” — aimed at silencing free speech through lengthy and meritless court fights.

David Reymann, a media attorney who represents the Millard County newspaper, said last week that he believes this is the first time a news organization in Utah has challenged a libel lawsuit under the strengthened anti-SLAPP law.

Attorneys for the Chronicle Progress argued in its dismissal request that their case “is a prime example of why that was enacted.”

“This case is a retaliatory lawsuit,” the filing reads, “brought by a litigious real estate developer who seeks to silence the voice of the small-town newspaper that dared report on his efforts to convince Fillmore City to help him raise hundreds of millions of dollars by selling infrastructure bonds for a development project.”

“There is no merit to his defamation claim,” the filing continues, “but that’s not the point of lawsuits like this.”

The media lawyers pointed out that the source of much of the material the newspaper used — which Aston now asserts is libel — came from the public record, including Aston’s lengthy litigation history and statements made during Fillmore City Council meetings. The newspaper reported these public facts accurately, the lawyers argue, and that speech is protected by the state constitution and the First Amendment.

Aston’s attorney, Ryan Frazier, said that while they support the principles behind the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act, “it was never intended to shield media outlets from the consequences of publishing malicious and demonstrably false allegations.”

“We trust that the court will carefully examine the facts,” Frazier said, “and hold the newspaper responsible for any damages they have caused.”

‘Weaponizing the judicial branch’

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsored last year’s bill to strengthen Utah’s anti-SLAPP law. There has been a movement in Utah and throughout the country, he said during a 2023 legislative hearing, of people trying to shut down free speech through intimidation.

“That intimidation,” he said, “generally comes in the form of weaponizing the judicial branch.”

Utah’s previous anti-SLAPP law wasn’t working, Bramble said. He gave the example of former Salt Lake County Republican communications director David Robinson suing 148 defendants, including The Salt Lake Tribune and other media outlets. The Tribune published an article in March 2021 that reported a half a dozen Republican women alleged Robinson had contributed to a toxic environment within the county party and accused him of harassment, body shaming and other inappropriate behavior.

Robinson sued media outlets and many in the top ranks of Utah politics in January 2022, alleging that statements, social media posts and Facebook likes by these leaders in connection with the controversy amounted to a “concerted effort to defame him.” That case is still pending more than two years later, though most of the defendants — including The Tribune — have since been dismissed.

The previous anti-SLAPP law, passed more than 20 years ago, could not be used in that case, said Reymann, the media attorney, during the legislative hearing last year. Under the law at that time, a motion to dismiss could only be filed if the speech in question was directed at the legislative or executive branches of government.

“That left unprotected a vast amount of speech on matters of public concern, particularly given the way the internet has transformed the way people communicated,” Reymann said last week. “The new law has a much broader sweep, protecting all speech on matters of public concern, which is much more consistent with how the courts have interpreted the scope of First Amendment protections.”

The new law also directs judges to award attorney fees to defendants if they win and a judge throws out the libel case.

‘A Constitutional right’

In the Millard County Chronicle Progress case, the small newspaper is arguing that a judge should dismiss the case because it accurately reported about a person who should be considered a “limited public figure,” based on Aston’s decision to voluntarily inject himself into public debate by speaking at city council meetings.

This meant the newspaper’s speech was “privileged,” its attorneys argued, and protected by the Utah constitution and the First Amendment.

“The Chronicle Progress did nothing more than report what was said in City Council meetings,” the filing reads, “and was otherwise in public record — a history [Aston] apparently would prefer not be known by residents of Fillmore.”

“But facts are sometimes troublesome things,” the lawyers continued, “and the Chronicle Progress has a constitutional right to report on them no matter how unflattering they may be.”

Media attorneys also argued that the newspaper — which has been covering Millard County for 130 years, and currently employs four people — was not motivated by malice.

“Over the course of six articles, the Chronicle Progress went to great lengths to report all sides of the public controversy surrounding Aston and the Valley Forge project,” the motion reads, adding that reporter Matt Ward included lengthy responses from Aston himself in the articles.

The newspaper, attorneys argued, did “what every responsible journalist should do” and solicited Aston’s response whenever possible while reporting concerns expressed by the City Council.

“Under such circumstances, the news media is not precluded from presenting the other side simply because a plaintiff disagrees,” the filing reads. “Aston had his opportunity for counter-speech, and he took it. The resulting articles, taken in their full context, are accordingly privileged.”

Aston sued both the Chronicle Progress and Ward, who wrote the articles about Aston’s development plans. He argues the newspaper brought up negative accusations about his previous business dealings in an effort to dissuade Fillmore city officials from continuing the project.

The developer in March 2022 announced he planned to build a factory to produce modular housing units. But by last August, the Chronicle Progress reported Aston’s plans had changed significantly. Ward reported then that the development agreement no longer proposed building modular housing, but a facility which would turn construction waste into other building products.

Ward, an editor and reporter at the paper since 2019, wrote in an article that city officials had soured on Aston’s plans, citing comments made during a city council meeting. But Aston argued in his lawsuit that the city has never “completely rejected” his project, and that he continues to work with officials to revise details in the development agreement.

Correction • 1:15 p.m., April 29, 2024: A previous version of this story contained outdated information about the amount of monetary compensation Wayne Aston is seeking. In an amended complaint filed in January, he increased his request to $19.2 million.