There have been some epic battles in our times. SC vs. Notre Dame, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, Godzilla vs. King Kong. The most recent addition to this list is Welch vs. Nyberg. Welch vs. Nyberg?
In September, Emmanuel ‘Chris’ Welch, Proviso District 209 School Board President, sued local resident, Review columnist, blog owner, and political gadfly Carl Nyberg for defamation. The lawsuit refers to specific postings on Carl’s political blog Proviso Probe, www.provisoprobe.blogspot.com.
After reading the headline my first reaction was that this is a SLAPP suit. SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Characteristically these lawsuits are filed by developers, large business interests, and elected officials against their vocal opponents. The lawsuits are filed quickly, without much legal research, because the goal is not necessarily to win the suit, but to intimidate the under funded, legally ignorant, naysayers. By the time the case is dismissed, and the vast majority of the SLAPP suits are, the zoning changes have been passed, the needed land has been condemned, the plaintiff has achieved its’ objective.
The political purpose of SLAPP suits by politicians is to stop what they perceive as withering and stifling criticism from the portion of the public that isn’t buying what they are saying. The suit or even the threat of a lawsuit is used to keep people from writing letters to the editors, jumping on web sites or blogs, or other forms of free speech. It generally happens locally where the media exposure is limited. I’m sure President Bush would have loved to move Cindy Sheehan away from his ranch during his vacation but any type of legal action on his behalf would have created a firestorm of bad publicity. Too many TV cameras. The same is not true on the local level.
This isn’t the first time Welch has sued his critics. In the September 21 edition of the Review it was reported that in 2002 he sued Mike Manzo for a nice round figure of $75 million. Manzo was quoted saying that ‘the suit did not go anywhere.’ Earlier this year he sued two critics for defamation over statements made during his run for D209 Board President. The suit was later withdrawn. See a pattern yet?
In the December 24, 2003 edition of the Review, Mayor Calderone in a letter to the editor, lashed out at Veronica Kensington, who had been a frequent critic of the mayor in letters to the editor of her own. The Mayor said in what I consider to be a not too veiled threat “Fortunately, the courts will soon be hearing a case involving reckless comments made against public officials involving false accusations of wrongdoing. At some point in the future, those members of the public may be held accountable for their evil and unwarranted actions of speech.”
I don’t know what case he was referring to, or its outcome, but if it was the Mayor’s desire was to stifle criticism from Kensington and others it failed miserably. Opponents of the Mayor and his allies have become more focused, with more decibels, and at times have been more inappropriate.
Herein lies the dilemma. Who decides what is legitimate free speech and what is defamatory? In a perfect world it would be me. Alas, the world is imperfect and we rely on the courts to decide whether it is the Welchs or the Nybergs of the world who have crossed the proverbial and ever changing line that divides the world between legal and illegal, between right and wrong.
To be fair, I am not in the shoes of Welch, Calderone, Bush, or any other elected official. I am not on the receiving end of the public complaints, not to mention the emails, letters, and phone calls that never make it into the public domain. However, I don’t think the politics of today are more sordid or viscous than any other era. It’s just more acceptable to put this all on TV, in the newspapers and magazines, and especially on the Internet. Anyone in office or thinking about running for office needs to accept this as fact.
I’m not a lawyer and haven’t seen the lawsuit, but if I had to guess, I would say that Carl will ultimately prevail in this battle. I would caution him however that I also thought the Cubs, not the White Sox would be in this year’s playoffs and that John Edwards would be our president. I would also hope that all of our currently elected officials would refrain from suing or threatening to sue their detractors. At the time it may seem like political expediency, but it always comes off to the public as schoolyard bullying, and shows weakness to weather tough circumstances. It’s a weakness I’m sure candidates for office don’t really want to expose.