Defamation or Free Speech?

Defamation or Free Speech?

Conservative activist gets hit w/defamation suit

2024 | Week of May 27 | Radio Transcript #1568

Is it defamation if I post on social media that someone is a bully?  Or how about if I assert on social media that a public figure is a liar? What if I post that someone is a liberal woke activist and is hurting people? Do any of these statements rise to the level of defamation?

The legal answer to that question is no—none of these constitutes defamation. Now, making those statements on social media may not be the smartest thing to do and these types of posts may not pass the “is-it-true-kind-or-necessary” test, but that’s a different issue.

According to Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, defamation from a legal perspective, at least to be actionable, meaning appropriate to sue on the grounds of defamation, a statement must be “provably false.” This definition is established law in federal court cases. WILL clarifies by saying, quote, “That is, a comment must directly state or clearly imply an objective, binary truth claim that listeners would reasonably understand to be either true or false.”[1]

WILL goes on, “Courts regularly hold that nebulous concepts like ‘woke’ and ‘bully’ that are routinely and indiscriminately thrown about in public discourse are not actionable precisely because their meaning depends on one’s opinion and viewpoint.”

What the courts have “regularly” held on this matter of what constitutes defamation makes sense. Basically, what the courts have recognized is that under the First Amendment Freedom of Speech we supposedly have in this country, people can make oral and written assertions and opinions about other people that may or may not be accurate or nice or what many would consider appropriate without being guilty of legally defaming someone.

Apparently, this understanding of defamation is not clear to at least one Wisconsin public school employee and her attorney. Back in 2023, Scarlett Johnson, a conservative activist with Moms for Liberty, posted some statements on social media in response to learning that Mary MacCudden, an employee at Homestead High School in the Mequon-Thiensville School District, was serving as the Social Justice Coordinator.

Ms. Johnson offered her opinion of how her tax dollars are being used for this position and said, “This is just what mtschools need: more woke white women w/a god complex.” In a separate post but referring to the same issue, Ms. Johnson says, quote, “Parents know these woke lunatics are woke bullies. They are bullying you into silence and compliance.”

Ms. MacCudden didn’t see Ms. Johnson’s posts as her exercising her right to Free Speech and brought a lawsuit against Ms. Johnson alleging that Ms. Johnson had defamed her. Ms. Johnson engaged Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty as her attorneys. The Circuit Court denied Ms. Johnson’s motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment and now intends to hold a trial on, as WILL says, “whether MacCudden really is ‘woke’ or has a ‘god complex.’”

Last week, on behalf of Ms. Johnson, WILL filed a petition with District 1 Court of Appeals asking for permissive appeal, seeking to get this case dismissed and spare Ms. Johson an unnecessary trial. Not surprisingly, WILL argues that what Ms. Johnson posted about Ms. MacCudden is not defamation but rather Ms. Johnson’s opinion; and the First Amendment protects her right to express her opinion, even if it infuriates the person who is the target.

I think this defamation lawsuit is all about trying to bully concerned citizens into silence especially when it comes to making critical statements about public schools and their practices or policies.  If you can intimidate a leader into being quiet and pretty much going away, then you are quite sure people who are not leaders will also keep their mouths shut. Stop the controversy and criticism by bullying people into compliance.

I’m thankful Ms. Johnson and WILL are not backing down—for the sake of every conservative in our state. Defamation has a legal standard. What Ms. Johnson posted is free speech, not defamation.  How does one prove in a court of law that an individual is woke or has a “god complex”? That’s ridiculous on its face. We need to hope and pray the Court of Appeals has more sense than the confused judge on the Circuit Court—or did I just defame the Circuit Court judge?

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you that God, through the Prophet Hosea, said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”


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