BOSTON — A Web site operator did not libel an Athol town official when her site posted statements suggesting the official was a Nazi, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday.
A three-judge panel overturned a lower court ruling that found the former selectman's lawsuit over the Internet posting did not fit the definition of a "SLAPP" suit.
SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, uses litigation to attempt to silence opponents. A 1994 state law is intended to discourage SLAPP suits.
"I am very pleased that the Appeals Court saw the lawsuit for what it was: an attempt to stifle political debate," said Robert A. Bertsche, a lawyer for the woman who ran the Web site.
Mark A. MacDonald, a former Athol selectman, called the ruling "ghastly."
"I'm not at all pleased with it, and I think that it makes me a victim again. I've become a victim one more time," he said. "I wasn't someone who shirked my duty, and suddenly I'm a Nazi on the Internet."
Elsa Paton, the woman who ran the now-defunct Web site, said her site was satirical and meant to "poke fun at an elected official."
"This case has had a significantly chilling effect on how I have viewed my right to free speech," she said. "I hope that today's decision will help make public officials think twice before they step on someone for exercising their rights."
Suffolk University Law School professor Mike Rustad said the case is the first he's heard of in which an anti-SLAPP law has been used successfully to defend a cyberspace posting.
"The purpose of the (anti-SLAPP) statute was to be sure that citizens would be able to express their opinions, and that's what this Web site did," he said. "The First Amendment still lives in cyberspace, basically."
The case originated with a public dispute in Athol over where to locate a police station and ambulance service. After a 1996 decision on the police station site, the Athol Daily News referred to then-selectman MacDonald, a former state police officer, as a "Gestapo agent," according to the ruling.
Elsa Paton ran a Web site reporting on Athol affairs. The site included a "First Dictionary of Athonics" section where residents posted various definitions by e-mail.
After the "Gestapo" description was used in the newspaper, a town resident e-mailed a response that suggested MacDonald was a Nazi.
After MacDonald lost a re-election bid, he sued Paton, the newspaper, its publisher, and editor in 1999, claiming he was libeled and suffered emotional distress.
Paton filed a motion arguing that MacDonald's suit fit the definition of a SLAPP suit. The Superior Court judge rejected Paton's argument, saying that the state's anti-SLAPP legislation did not apply. Paton appealed.
"(We) hold that it was in error for the judge to deny Paton's special motion to dismiss," the appeals court ruled.
Attorneys for Paton and MacDonald did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The claims against the newspaper, its editor and publisher were thrown out last May. That ruling is under appeal, but was not the subject of yesterday's decision.