IDAHO FALLS (CN) – A Mother Jones magazine report that Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot “outed” a newspaper reporter for being gay were “truthful” and therefore not defamatory, an Idaho judge ruled.
VanderSloot sued the nonprofit magazine, an editor and reporter in 2013, claiming the February 2012 article, “Pyramid-Like Company Ponies Up $1 Million for Mitt Romney,” defamed him and his company, Melaleuca.
Mother Jones, co-editor-in-chief Monika Bauerlein and reporter Stephanie Mencimer filed a motion for summary judgment this year, and Bonneville County Senior District Judge Darla Williamson granted the motion on Oct. 6 last week, after a Sept. 17 hearing.
“All of the statements at issue are non-actionable truth, or substantial truth,” Williamson wrote in a 56-page order, which also said the statements are protected fair comment under the First Amendment.
The fray stretches back to a series of articles in 2005 by Idaho Post-Register reporter Peter Zuckerman, who wrote of alleged pedophilia at an Idaho Falls Boy Scout camp under the nose of the Church of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors the organization.
VanderSloot then took out a series of Community Page ads in the Post-Register. One of the ads, titled “Biased Reporter,” speculated that Zuckerman’s homosexuality, the Boy Scout prohibition of gay Scout leaders and the LDS Church’s position on gay marriage may have motivated his series, “Scouts Honor.“ VanderSloot said described the series as “a story that unfairly and without merit, paints Scout leaders and church leaders to appear unscrupulous, and blame them for the molestation of little children.”
Mencimer mentioned the ads in her Mother Jones article on Melaleuca’s financial support of Romney, then the Republican Party’s presidential nominee and a member of the LDS Church.
VanderSloot wrote to Mother Jones that some of the article’s statements were defamatory, specifically, the claim that he “outed” and “bashed” Zuckerman for being gay.
He added that a tweet sent by Bauerlein was “highly incendiary, false and defamatory on its face.”
Bauerlein’s tweet, which stated: “Romney’s gay-bashing buddy runs a company that targets stay-at-home moms for misleading marketing scheme,” leads readers to the February article.
Judge Williamson rejected the claim that the statement was “defamatory on its face.”
“A writer cannot be sued for simply expressing his opinion of another person, however unreasonable the opinion or vituperous the expressing of it may be,” Williamson wrote. “Statements of opinion are protected by the First Amendment unless they ‘imply a false assertion of fact.'”
She added: “Hyperbole, or statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual, are also protected from liability,” and that “Mere ‘name calling’ is likewise not actionable.”
Bauerlein called VanderSloot’s lawsuit an attempt to suppress speech.
“This was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a superrich businessman and donor, to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of,” she said in a statement. “Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01 percent can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also media coverage of those campaigns.”
Mother Jones, which has spent about $2.5 million defending the lawsuit, noted that VanderSloot, Idaho’s richest person, sued for $74,000, “exactly $1 under the amount at which the lawsuit could have been moved to federal court. That ensured the case would be decided by jurors from the community where his company is the biggest employer and the sponsor of everything from the minor league ballpark to the Fourth of July fireworks.”
A spokesperson for Mother Jones was not available over the weekend.
After the ruling VanderSloot, who has endowed $1 million for lawsuits against the “liberal” media, told The Associated Press: “It will be a mission for me for the rest of my life to hold the press accountable. The press is so protected, as shown in this case.”
VanderSloot, a rancher, one of the largest landowners in the country, and a member of the board of the national Chamber of Commerce, has taken public stands against gay rights issues. Melaleuca describes itself as “The Wellness Company,” offering “health technology” and “safer-for-your-home” products.
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