Attack Of The Campaign Ads: What Constitutes Defamation In Political Ads?

united_states_capitol_politics_1-scaledPersonal attacks often take center stage in the tumultuous arena of modern political campaigns, leaving no stone unturned and no reputation untouched. Yet, amidst this well-trodden path of character assaults, a unique legal battle emerges, where the crosshairs were not directed at a political rival but rather a candidate’s ex-spouse. In a case that blurs the lines between public discourse and private matters, the spotlight falls on the intersection of defamation claims and the exercise of free speech. Can a campaign ad’s accusations against an ex-spouse be enough to launch a successful legal battle?

Nicholas Schittone filed a lawsuit against Brooke Stoma, Candyce Perret, and Perret for Judge Campaign, LLC for defamation related to a commercial advertisement that ran on television and radio related to Perret’s candidacy in an election for an open judgeship position on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Louisiana. Schittone claimed the advertisements included defamatory statements that accused him of being abusive to his child and ex-wife, Stoma. He admitted his name was not used in the advertisement but claimed the content made it obvious to those who knew him that the accusations related to him. 

The defendants filed a special motion to strike under La. C.C.P. art. 971 and claimed Schittone’s lawsuit should be dismissed because he could not meet his burden that he was likely to succeed in his claim on the merits. The trial court denied the defendant’s special motion to strike, finding Schittone was not running for office, so the issues in the campaign were not of public interest or concern, so the commercial did not relate to their exercise of free speech. The trial court also awarded Schittone attorneys’ fees. The defendants filed an appeal.

On appeal, the defendants argued the trial court erred in finding the lawsuit did not arise from an act related to the exercise of free speech and in denying their special motion to strike. Under La. C.C.P. art. 971, a lawsuit arising from a person’s exercise of free speech is subject to a special motion to strike unless it is shown the plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits of the case. The appellate court explained La. C.C.P. art. 971 applies to narrow situations to avoid chilling people’s First Amendment rights. See Stabiler v. Louisiana Business, Inc.

The appellate court explained although the commercial mentioned a private issue, the main fore of the at-issue speech related to the campaign for a judicial office, which was of public concern. Therefore, the trial court erred in finding the speech in the commercial was not the subject of a special motion to strike. Consequently, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment denying the defendants’ special motion to strike. 

The appellate court could not analyze Schittone’s probability of succeeding on the merits of his claim because no evidence had yet been presented. So, the appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Schittone had presented sufficient evidence to establish his probability of success on the merits and the award of attorneys’ fees.

The case of Nicholas Schittone and the campaign ad that thrust his personal life into the public sphere serves as a reminder of the intricate balance between free speech and defamation claims. In the arena where political ambitions clash, and the battleground is strewn with cutting and calculating words, the First Amendment finds itself both shield and sword. When defamation rears its head, seeking legal guidance becomes imperative. A seasoned attorney can unravel the complexities, clarifying the avenues of recourse, such as the unique mechanism of a special motion to strike. So, if your reputation finds itself under assault or if you stand accused in the tumult of public discourse, remember that legal expertise can be the compass guiding you through the uncharted waters of speech, opinion, and justice.

Additional Sources: Nicholas J. Schittone v. Brooke R. Stoma and Candyce Perret

Article Written By Berniard Law Firm

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