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A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit claiming West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder had defamed a former executive of a municipally owned communications network in an article published under a false name on the KSL.com website.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart dismissed the lawsuit stemming from the article Winder penned under the name Richard Burwash about Chris Hogan, who also is suing the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) over his dismissal.
The article by Winder, whose city is one of the UTOPIA owners, was defamatory because it falsely implied Hogan had been criminally charged with extortion as part of his battle against the agency, according to the lawsuit filed in January.
Stewart ruled that even taking Hogan's facts as stated in his lawsuit as true, he failed to show that a reader could reasonably construe that Hogan had been charged criminally. Instead, the judge wrote, "The article clearly communicates that the extortion statements were made in the context of heated civil litigation." It made no mention of a criminal case and was reporting on the opinions of people involved, Stewart wrote.
Jeff Hunt, attorney for the KSL.com owner Deseret Digital Media, said the ruling recognizes that opinions of people involved in controversial matters are constitutionally protected speech.
"The other important [principle]," Hunt said, "is the message the decision sends about the importance of allowing news organizations to be able to report on public controversies like hotly contested litigation."
Hogan's attorney, Steve S. Christensen, immediately filed a notice of appeal. The judge should have allowed the case to go forward so Hogan could gather evidence, he said. "At this point in the proceedings," Christensen said, "we contend the matter should not be dismissed."
Winder said he was pleased and felt vindicated. But the mayor also apologized for using a false name to publish various articles, including the one about Hogan. "This victory does not change the fact that I remain deeply apologetic for any trouble my citizen-journalism experiment with a pen name caused last year," Winder said in an email, which also expressed the hope the court decision "allows us all to move forward without further distraction."
The Burwash stories published by the Deseret News and KSL.com were submitted via Deseret Connect, a venue for freelance writers to contribute to those outlets and the Mormon Times and LDS Church News.
Also dismissed from the lawsuit by Stewart's ruling were UTOPIA officials and their agency; West Valley City; attorney David Shaw and his firm, Kirton & McConkie; and Kevan Barney and The Summit Group, a public relations and advertising agency.
A second lawsuit by Hogan over his dismissal remains pending in federal court.