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Sheriff Candidate Loses Big Defamation Award

ATLANTA (CN) - The 11th Circuit tossed the $3.6 million verdict for a Forsyth County sheriff candidate who claimed that his opponent in the race defamed him by telling voters he was a convicted criminal.

Danny Bennett, the candidate, will get a chance to raise his claims against former Forsyth County Sheriff Dennis Hendrix at a new trial, the federal appeals court ruled in an unpublished opinion.

During the 2000 election, Bennett says Hendrix passed out three fliers that portrayed him as a convicted criminal. Although all three fliers were originally determined as defamatory, the three-judge appellate panel ruled that "two of the three fliers were in fact protected speech."

Ultimately, however, the court rejected Hendrix's argument that Bennett was not entitled to full First Amendment protection as a limited-purpose public figure.

"As Hendrix concedes, the only public matter in which Bennett engaged was a committee that advocated to reform the local police force two years prior to Hendrix's reelection campaign," the unsigned opinion states. "But of course the defamation occurred in relation to that later reelection campaign, in which Bennett played no role other than contributing money."

The new trial will determine any damages from the defamatory content in the second flier, according to the ruling.

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