PHOENIX — An Arizona appeals court yesterday upheld a jury’s $600,000 judgment in favor of a rancher in a defamation lawsuit, rejecting an environmental group’s argument that documents it posted on the Internet were shielded by the First Amendment.
The Court of Appeals upheld a Pima County Superior Court jury’s award of compensatory and punitive damages to Jim Chilton in his lawsuit against the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit with offices in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, D.C.
A lawyer for the rancher said the appellate court had stood up for a person wrongly defamed, while an attorney for the center said the ruling trampled citizens’ right to petition for redress of grievances.
Chilton contended he and his business, Chilton Ranch and Cattle Co., were defamed by false postings the center made on its Web site. The posting referred to alleged overgrazing on Chilton’s grazing allotment ,issued by the U.S. Forest Service for 21,500 acres in the Arivaca area northwest of Nogales, Ariz.
The center unsuccessfully opposed the 10-year renewal granted for Chilton’s grazing permit, and the group subsequently posted links to the center’s appeal and related photographs on its Web site.
The environmental group argued that the documents were shielded by state and federal constitutional protections for the right to petition the government over grievances because the appeal and photographs submitted with it were public records related to official proceedings.
However, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel in Tucson said the center did not raise the issue of constitutional protections until too late in the case.
The center asked for extra leeway on that point, but the court refused, saying that the jury found evidence of “actual malice” that indicated that the center knew that some of the material was false.
The court also declined to rule on whether past Arizona court rulings provide a blanket protection against defamation claims arising from official proceedings. Chilton’s suit challenged the posting of the documents on the Internet, not their submission in the Forest Service appeal proceeding in which the public comment period was already completed by the time the postings were made, the court said.
The trial jury found the center made false statements in photo captions, including one that implied that grazing by Chilton’s cattle was responsible for damage actually caused by hundreds of people, including the photographer, who attended a May Day festival.
Kraig Marton, a lawyer for Chilton, said he was pleased by the ruling. “We hope that this sends a message to anyone who would wrongly defame any good person,” he said.
Susan Seager, a lawyer for the center, said it would ask the Arizona Supreme Court to accept an appeal.
At stake is important legal protection for citizens who want to republish documents they’ve already filed in appeals and petitions with the government, Seager said.
“This court held that they lost that privilege,” Seager said. “It’s the Internet age colliding with the very old right to petition.”
Seager said the center has already paid the judgment of $100,000 of compensatory damages and $500,000 of punitive damages plus interest.
The case is Chilton v. Center for Biological Diversity Inc., 2 CA-CV 2005-0115.