Republican Art Robinson’s defamation lawsuit against U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio was doomed from the start. Robinson wanted DeFazio to be punished for deceptive political advertising.
That’s like demanding Dale Ernhardt Jr. be ticketed for speeding at the Daytona 500.
As Josephine County Circuit Court Judge Pat Wolke ruled last month in dismissing the suit, omissions and misstatements are more offensive when they don’t occur during a political campaign.
Political ads have a low threshold to be considered truthful, more or less. Positive ads ooze less sincerity than a late-night infomercial. Attack ads poke fun, highlight foibles and lampoon positions. This is what DeFazio did, and Robinson didn’t like it.
Two weeks before Election Day, Robinson filed the $1 million suit in his home county, claiming DeFazio made him look like a nut.
Robinson cited an Internet cartoon and roadside billboards, including ones in Roseburg and Sutherlin, that blared out Robinson’s purported dislike for public education, Social Security and Oregon State University.
DeFazio and Robinson, of course, disagree on whether the billboards and cartoon were truthful. DeFazio submitted documentation to support his claims. Robinson said his words were twisted and that he presented his true views in his campaign book, “Common Sense.”
Judge Wolke found the messages could have been clearer, but they weren’t “so inconsistent with Mr. Robinson’s political positions or beliefs that he is likely to recover any economic damages ...”
Accuracy was a secondary issue anyway.
Robinson’s main beef was that voters were hoodwinked into thinking he was batty enough to advertise unpopular positions.
The billboards included Robinson’s face, but three failed to include a disclaimer letting voters know DeFazio bought the ad, not Robinson. He argued, understandably, that motorists assumed they were his billboards.
In a court filing, DeFazio blamed the mistakes on a billboard company and campaign vendor. But Robinson saw it as part of a scheme by DeFazio to make him look like a nut job.
“In the world of politics, voters generally disbelieve what a candidate says about the opposing candidate.
However, if a candidate can convince voters that the opposing candidate says or portrays things about himself in a manner that voters find offensive, many voters will change their votes,” Robinson wrote in a court filing.
In the end, Wolke decided last month to not let the suit go forward and consume any more time. He ruled that Robinson and DeFazio were public figures, federal election laws pre-empt state courts and, of course, it was a political campaign.
The big lesson here is an old lesson — voter beware.