Federal Judge Tosses Cops' Lawsuit Against A Councilmember Who Said The Police Dept. Had Committed Murder

from the being-offended-isn't-the-same-as-being-harmed dept

A federal judge in Washington just reminded two Seattle police officers that a politician saying unkind things about law enforcement is not defamation. (h/t Peter Bonilla)

Following the killing of Che Taylor by Seattle police officers, councilwoman Kshama Sawant issued statements criticizing the Seattle Police Department for the shooting. From the decision [PDF]:

Approximately five days after the shooting, Sawant appeared before a crowd and media in front of the police department. This was not official city council business, and certainly not a “legislative function.” Sawant, however, implied awareness of inside factual information, and appeared to be making a statement against interest. With gravitas established, she went on to pronounce Che Taylor’s death a “brutal murder” and product of “racial profiling.”

Sawant reiterated these comments throughout the year, according to the lawsuit. However, she never directly accused the two suing officers -- Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding -- of being murderers. Her comments called the shooting a "brutal murder" and implied the PD engaged in biased policing, but at no time did she mention these two officers by name.

The officers argued Sawant's statements impugned them individually even though she only spoke about the police department as a whole. The court says suing as individuals and advancing a group theory of defamation takes far more than the officers showed in their complaint.

[W]whether proceeding under an individual or group theory, Plaintiffs must plead that the statements “specifically” identified or singled them out, or was understood as “referring to [them] in particular.” Sims, 20 Wn. App. at 236.

Here, Plaintiffs have not done so, and the Court finds that Councilmember Sawant’s statements do not satisfy the “of and concerning” requirement. According to the SAC, Councilmember Sawant, while standing in front of the Seattle Police Department, stated that “the police” committed a “brutal murder” which was “racially motivated.” (Dkt. No. 23 at ¶¶ 46, 54.) Councilmember Sawant did not identify Officers Miller and Spaulding by name, nor did she provide any information that would even remotely allow listeners to ascertain their identities, such as their rank or position, division or unit, precinct, or length of time on the force. Finally, Councilmember Sawant’s statements referred broadly to “the police,” the “Seattle Police Department,” and “systematic police brutality and racial profiling.”

Feeling insulted by blanket statements isn't a solid basis for a defamation lawsuit. The officers' attempt to tie reporting from local papers to the councilmember's statements fares even worse.

While Plaintiffs contend that Councilmember Sawant “continually brings it back to these specific officers and this specific incident” her references to “holding the Seattle Police Department accountable for their reprehensible actions, individual actions” and seeking “justice on the individual actions” do not clearly establish Officers Miller and Spaulding as their target. See Sims, 20 Wn. App. at 237 (“[T]he plaintiff must show with convincing clarity that he was the target of the statement.”) (emphasis added).

That the Seattle Times contemporaneously published an article identifying Officers Miller and Spaulding by name does not change this outcome. The “identification of the plaintiff[s] as the person[s] defamed” must be “certain and apparent from the words themselves,” without reference to extrinsic sources. Id. at 234 (emphasis added) [...] Finally, even if Plaintiffs were correct that the references to “individual actions,” coupled with their identification in the Seattle Times, could somehow transform what are otherwise vague and oblique statements into actionable defamation, the SAC does not plead any of these facts.

The officers have already been given one chance to turn their complaint into something actionable. The court isn't willing to give them a third try -- not when it's apparent this defamation lawsuit can't be fixed.

[E]ven if the Court were to grant Plaintiffs leave to amend to include these statements, they cannot satisfy the “of and concerning” requirement, and Plaintiffs make no effort to explain how they could resolve this deficiency, or how additional discovery could possibly uncover additional actionable statements.

The lawsuit is done. Dismissed with prejudice. These cops paid for the chance to learn that people saying unkind things is not actually defamation, especially when the person saying these things never names names. Thanks to this stupid lawsuit, Seattle taxpayers will be doubling up paying for these officers' actions. First, they paid for the city's defense of Councilmember Sawant's non-defamatory statements. They'll be asked to foot the bill again in the near future to defend these officers from a lawsuit brought by the family of the man they killed.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, che taylor, defamation, free speech, kshama sawant, michael spaulding, scott miller, seattle, washington


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 9:39am

    It's not defamation because the underlying facts that gave rise to the statement were in full public view. Just as if they said "He had fourteen drinks at the bar Wednesday night. He's an alcoholic!" It's an opinion based on a true underlying fact, versus saying "His wife should divorce him because he's an alcoholic," without explaining the basis for the opinion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 10:19am

      Re:

      That's why the lawyer added

      "Sawant, however, implied awareness of inside factual information,"

      to the complaint. At the point in the process where they failed, all they had to do was write down enough things that were not total lies that if believed 100% and the other side offered no defense, then they might win. They couldn't even do that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 10:33am

      Re:

      versus saying "His wife should divorce him because he's an alcoholic," without explaining the basis for the opinion.

      That doesn't seem like a great example. When a lay person says "alcoholic", they mean that in their opinion the person drinks too much alcohol. They don't have to state the basis for that opinion, because everybody can guess what it would be. Perhaps it could be defamation if a doctor said it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 10:40am

        Re: Re:

        In that example, however, no evidence of excessive drinking was presented.

        Even with the supposed "inside facts," as a juror I'd still call it opinion unless some specific conspiracy was alleged.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 12:17pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          In that example, however, no evidence of excessive drinking was presented.

          "Excessive" is an inherently subjective term. The claim could neither be proven nor disproven, unless a person literally never drinks or has died of alcohol poisoning.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 7:07pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            The "fourteen drinks in one night" example is what I gave. If someone saw him having fourteen drinks, then calling him an alcoholic is not libel. Without a specific incident to explain the "opinion" then it veers towards factual territory.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Daydream, 20 Mar 2019 @ 11:36am

    A pity the judge didn't rule that it wasn't defamation on account of being the truth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 11:50am

    To play devil's advocate for a moment: the councilwoman did state that "the police" murdered a specific individual after submitting him to racial profiling. This means that she was indirectly stating that the men who shot the individual murdered him, so anyone who knew who those men were, including the councilwoman, would be defaming them if it wasn't, in fact, murder.

    The actual case, of course, is more complex than this, and that's not how the laws work, but they do have a minor point even if it's not enough to further a legal case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2019 @ 12:10pm

      Re:

      Even then, I'm not sure it's much of a point. From a semantic view, "murder" might have a specific meaning, but from a pragmatic view "murder" is most often used in rhetoric for any death which the speaker considers unwarranted or unjust irrespective of the specific semantic meaning. Language is fun like that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 20 Mar 2019 @ 1:34pm

    Well they didn't know before you tried(and failed) to sue...

    Ah classic... They objected to the councilmember saying the police had murdered someone, but no-one knew who she was talking about until those two opened their mouths and made it crystal clear that they were the killers in question.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      bob, 20 Mar 2019 @ 5:25pm

      Re: Well they didn't know before you tried(and failed) to sue...

      No, they might have felt guilty about a different "murder" they were involved in.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Gary (profile), 20 Mar 2019 @ 5:48pm

        Re: Re: Well they didn't know before you tried(and failed) to su

        No, they might have felt guilty about a different "murder" they were involved in.

        Obviously they didn't feel guilty at all.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ysth (profile), 20 Mar 2019 @ 7:49pm

    councilwoman

    In Seattle, the title is Councilmember.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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