Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Attorneys Defend 'Ugly' Mailer as Protected Speech

It's not pretty, it may be unfair, but it is free speech. That was the argument made Wednesday by attorneys arguing against an order to divulge the names of the people behind a 2003 mail piece that tried to tie now-state Sen. Julie Lassa to former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala.

"This piece was ugly. It was guilt by association. It was unfair. But that's what the political process permits," said Brady Williamson, speaking on behalf of seven organizations who filed friend of the court briefs supporting Rongstad's case.

Justices Patience Roggensack, Jon Wilcox and Patrick Crooks recused themselves from the case. Rongstad's attorney, Michael Crooks, is the son of Justice Crooks.

Lassa sued Rongstad, whose company worked on the postcard. The circuit court ordered Rongstad to turn over the names behind the nonprofit The Alliance for Working Wisconsin, the organization that produced the mailer. Rongstad refused to turn over the information, and was sanctioned $65,000 before the case was settled.

Michael Crooks tried to get the court to overturn the sanctions. He said anonymous pamphleteering is a time-honored and constitutionally protected form of political speech. To force the disclosure of those associated with the pamphlet would have a chilling effect on that form of speech.

Crooks argued that the standard for defamation is higher for public officials than for regular citizens because public officials have a greater access to media to defend themselves against charges. He characterized Rongstad as someone who "puts out politically timely pieces relative to the issues of the day."

Pamela McGillivray, Lassa's attorney, said the circuit court judge ruled the postcard was capable of defamatory meaning; it asserted that Lassa was a criminal and acted unethically. She said Lassa sought the names of the people behind The Alliance for Working Wisconsin to add them to the suit and prove malice.

But Lassa attorney John Skilton said there should be some standard for accuracy in mailers. The piece in question went out just days before an election, giving Lassa little time to respond. "The electorate has the right not to be defrauded," he said.

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