A Josephine County judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Republican Art Robinson that claimed U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio twisted his words on campaign billboards.
DeFazio, who won the election, stood by the accuracy of the messages, which appeared on billboards in Roseburg and other cities in the 4th Congressional District.
“The voters didn’t buy Robinson’s many stunts and neither did the court,” DeFazio said Wednesday in a written statement. “It was simply another ploy by Robinson to distract voters from the policy issues that really mattered just before the election.”
Robinson did not return a call today.
The Cave Junction Republican, who also lost to DeFazio in 2010, accused the Springfield Democrat of tricking voters into thinking Robinson had placed billboards advocating the closure of public schools and ending Social Security and federal student aid programs.
Two weeks before Election Day, Robinson sued for $1 million, claiming DeFazio cast him in a false light and illegally appropriated his likeness to put on the billboards.
DeFazio, who defeated Robinson by 72,317 votes, claimed all of the disputed billboard quotes came from Robinson himself and accurately portrayed his opponent’s views. Using photos of Robinson on the billboards was an accepted “fair use,” he argued.
In his April 25 ruling, Josephine County Circuit Judge Pat Wolke had some sympathy for two of Robinson’s claims, saying DeFazio played loose with the facts in taking one Robinson quote out of context and making up a quote for a cartoon lampooning Robinson’s views on Social Security. However, Wolke said that because both candidates are public figures and state law protects political speech, Robinson didn’t have a legal foot to stand on.
The judge further concluded that nearly all of Robinson’s claims were preempted by federal law and could not be litigated by a state court.
DeFazio’s campaign quoted Robinson as saying, “I don’t have definitive proof” regarding Robinson’s assertions that Oregon State University discriminated against children of his.
Wolke said the OSU quote was taken out of context because it omitted what Robinson said directly after what was printed on the billboard. “I don’t have definitive proof. Basically I know what happened. I cannot tell you the motives of the people doing it.”
The judge also found that there was no evidence Robinson ever said the words attributed to him in the cartoon: “Social Security was only created because people got tired of seeing senior citizens selling pencils on the corner.”
Wolke found that DeFazio and Robinson are public figures, under the definition from the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision New York Times vs. Sullivan.
The court ruled that public figures cannot prevail in a defamation lawsuit unless they can prove the publisher knew an assertion was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
“The court believes that this omission and misstatement would be much more offensive and actionable had they not occurred within a political campaign,” Wolke wrote in his five-page decision. “Neither the omission or the misstatement are so inconsistent with Mr. Robinson’s political positions or beliefs that he is likely to recover any economic damages.”
During the 2010 campaign, DeFazio referred to Robinson as a “bully” and a “pathological liar” during a candidates forum in Roseburg. Robinson shot back that DeFazio was a “dishonorable liar,” after earlier in the campaign branding him as a “socialist.”
Last year, Robinson published a book “Common Sense” that was mailed to more than 150,000 households in the district explaining his views to try and sway voters. DeFazio placed ads targeting what he said were Robinson’s extremist views on wanting to close public schools and end Social Security.
The rancor between the two men was so great that they could not agree on terms for a series of candidate debates, so none were held.
• You can reach reporter John Sowell at 541-957-4209 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.