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(Reuters) – A Michigan judge tossed out a $13 million defamation lawsuit brought against a Democratic state representative, the first time the country’s highest court has ruled a lawsuit over a political cartoon or other content is not valid.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it hoped the decision would encourage other lawmakers to challenge their libel claims in court and help defuse a dangerous climate in which politicians fear even suggesting that the cartoon should not be seen or discussed, the Detroit Free Press newspaper reported.
Representative Rick Jones said he was proud of the cartoon series and its message. “It’s my belief that in politics, humor works to bring people together and I think it is worth defending,” he told the paper. “As we all know, when some people put forward a frivolous claim they will get it rejected. It’s only fair that I have the ability to defend myself.”
The ruling could help clarify the line between what is true and what is libelous, said John Whitehead with the American Society of News Editors, which publishes the American Journal of News & Media.
“Politicians are under no obligation to engage in a free exchange of ideas and have a right to express those thoughts as they please,” he said. “But even if your views are not considered ‘jokeable’ — as it is claimed in this case — they might not be protected in the same way if some people believe you to have been cruel, insensitive or hateful. And that’s a danger that should be addressed by the courts.”
Representative James Comer, an Indiana Republican, said he was disappointed in the ruling but expected there would be an appeal.
“I’m pleased to hear that, but I’m going to stick to what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m not going to change my tone on anything.”
Representative Dan Kildee, who represents a Michigan suburb, had sued the American Freedom Defense Initiative, or AFDI, for posting the cartoon on its website two years ago. The organization argued the cartoon crossed the line of free speech, and the ruling may encourage the creation of free speech centers in other states.
Kildee said he would continue to work to ensure all legislators can speak their opinion.
“This ruling is a victory for speech,” he said. “Not so much a victory for speech rights, more or less a victory for every
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