MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered attorney James Donohoo to pay attorney fees for filing a frivolous defamation claim over a gay-rights activist group’s press release that quoted a speech at the “International Conference on Homo-Fascism” given by Donohoo’s client, Louisiana pastor and radio talk-show host Grant Storms.
In his October 2003 speech, Storms compared contemporary Christians to Israelites resting under a pomegranate tree instead of battling the Philistine army – the figurative gay movement.
“There is a Philistine army out there, and it’s called the homosexual movement,” he said. “Whether you can see it or not, understand it or not, they want to eliminate us. This is no time to be under a pomegranate tree … (The Israelites) were a bunch of Tiny Tims tiptoeing through the tulips.” He urged Christians to rise up and battle the enemy, instead of “shaking in (their) boots.”
He then told the Bible story of Jonathan killing the Philistines and shouted, “Wheeew! Come on. Let’s go. God has delivered them all into our hands. Hallelujah! Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. There’s 20. Whew. Cha-ching. Yes … Glory to God.”
Action Wisconsin took umbrage to the speech and issued a press release condemning Storms for his statements. One allegedly defamatory statement in the press release stated that a “speaker made sounds like gunfire as if he were shooting gay people.” Action Wisconsin also pointed out a state senator’s presence at the conference, and said that senate leadership would be appalled to find a colleague “in the audience for a speech apparently advocating the murder of his own constituents.”
Donohoo sued on Storms’ behalf, claiming statements in the press release were false and defamatory. After listening to audio tapes of the speech, Donohoo concluded that Storms had in no way advocated killing gay people.
But the circuit court called the defamation claim frivolous, because Donohoo could not show actual malice and had “merely dropped his paper ‘into the hopper’ of the legal system” without doing his research.
An appellate court reversal the circuit court’s finding, but the high court restored the original decision and ruled for Action Wisconsin. The justices found that Donohoo should have known that he could not prove actual malice.
Justices Roggensack, Prosser and Ziegler dissented, saying the complex, ambiguous nature of defamation law made it possible for a reasonable attorney to believe that a jury would find that Action Wisconsin defamed the preacher.