I recently received a letter from a law firm, on behalf of a Pueblo, CO, City Councilmember. The letter accused me of making “false and defamatory statements” about the Councilmember and threatening me with litigation for articles I wrote challenging her op-ed in the local newspaper in which she defended the killing of animals at the Pueblo pound by hiding behind PETA’s anti-No Kill rhetoric. My articles were not just accurate; they are politically protected speech.
The threat to silence matters of public import by an elected official is not just shameful. When animal lives are at stake, as they are when animals enter a pound that has not fully embraced a culture of lifesaving, it is dangerous given the life and death consequences.
Animals have no voice of their own and need others to speak for them. Regardless of whether it is an official from the highest levels of our government or a lowly councilmember from a city most people have never heard of, we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into silence. The stakes are too high.
My letter in reply is here:
Pursuant to your letter dated November 7, 2019, on behalf of Pueblo City Councilmember Lori Winner, this letter serves as a categorical denial that any of the referenced statements were made and as a counter demand that Councilmember Winner cease any future attempt to violate my rights to report the news, to free speech, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The two public statements involving the Councilmember I have written, neither of which contain the alleged accusations, were articles reporting on the op-ed she penned in the Pueblo Chieftain, in which the Councilmember defended the killing at the Pueblo pound. Not only were the articles I wrote accurate, they are politically protected speech. Complaining about inhumane conditions at animal shelters and inhumane policies promoted by elected officials is a constitutionally protected right. A member of the public not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against abuses committed by a government shelter and defended by elected officials, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified. As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, “speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145 (1983). Indeed, such speech lies “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.” First Nat’l Bank of Bos. v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 776 (1978).
Moreover, as an elected official, the Councilmember must prove actual malice, rather than a desire to report matters of public import and/or prevent harm to animals. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). There is no reasonable interpretation of the actual statements made in those investigative pieces (or even the ones she falsely claims were made) that can meet the requisite showing.
Finally, the articles were written on August 14, 2017 and September 19, 2017, over two years before the date of your letter. As you are no doubt aware, they fall well outside the statute of limitations.
Combined with the timing of your letter, two days after an election in which the Councilmember was a candidate, circumstances suggest a more nefarious motive: the letter appears to be nothing more than an illegal attempt by the Councilmember to stifle debate on issues of public import by intimidating citizens, reporters, and advocates of humane sheltering policies into silence. (See, e.g., 42 U.S. Code Sec. 1983.)
In an age when the girders underlying our democracy – a free press, civil liberties, and the rule of law – are under siege at and by the highest levels of our government, it is both shameful and dangerous that the Councilmember has chosen to borrow a page from that autocratic playbook. It cannot be allowed to stand and it is hereby demanded that the Councilmember cease and desist doing so.
Very truly yours,
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