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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

KKK Statement Won’t Leave Ex-Mayor Liable

(CN) - A federal judge nixed claims that Tommy Jones, the former mayor of Los Banos, Calif., defamed a small-town publisher by calling him "a dangerous member of the Ku Klux Klan."

While the statement was "both false and derogatory," it does not qualify as defamation since Jones never said it to anyone else, according to the ruling.

Eugene Forte claimed in court that he ran into the now ex-mayor at a May Day parade on May 5, 2007, and tried to get an interview with him for his blog, Badger Flats Gazette. The website takes aim at the alleged malfeasance of public officials.

Forte said he asked Jones how he felt about his progress as mayor, leading Jones to allegedly reply that he had heard Forte was "a dangerous member of the Ku Klux Klan."

In Forte's version of the event, Jones allegedly said he "knew for a fact" that Forte was a KKK member.

Forte said he then called over his black friend Clinton Galloway and asked Jones to repeat the statement. Galloway said he'd known Forte for over 30 years and "was absolutely positive plaintiff was not a member of the Ku Klux Klan."

Senior U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii granted Jones partial summary judgment last week.

"Plaintiff has failed to show that defendant's comment that he knew plaintiff to be a

'dangerous member of the Ku Klux Klan' was ever published to any third person by defendant," the ruling states. "While plaintiff may feel subjectively belittled by commentary about racism that may have surrounded plaintiff's complaint regarding defendant's alleged comment, the fact is that the commentary was solely the product of plaintiff's own instigation so far as the facts before the court show."

Ishii similarly sidelined Forte's defamation claim over another incident at a March 2008 council meeting. At the meeting, Forte said he attempted to confront Jones for taking personal loans from local developer Ranchwood Homes.

Jones allegedly said: "There were time if you try to do certain things you have been lynched with a rope. This time I got lynched with words."

Ishii concluded, however, that the lynching statement cannot be tied to the KKK statement.

"In the context of defendant's lynching statement, the only logical contextual connection regarding lynching is to the efforts of plaintiff and others who came to the meeting prepared to confront defendant and ask for his resignation," the ruling states. "As the evidence before the court stands, the only way anyone at the meeting could have made a connection between the 'lynching' statement and the alleged 'Ku Klux Klan' statement ten months earlier is through plaintiff's own public disclosure of the Ku Klux Klan statement."

He added: "At worst, the implication is to the effect that plaintiff and the others confronting defendant are racists. As explained above, that sort of name-calling is not actionable, no matter how subjectively hurtful it may be, because the statement is not of the sort that can be verified as false. Again, mere name-calling does not constitute the tort of defamation."

The ruling does allow Forte to pursue a claim for violations of his free-speech rights, stemming from his alleged forcible removal from the council meeting.

Forte said he got about two minutes into his public comment on the improper loans before he was hustled out of the meeting, amid protestations that his allotted five minutes was not up.

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