Settlement reached in Abourezk ‘traitor list’ lawsuit

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit that former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk filed against an Internet site that labeled him a traitor, lawyers for both sides said on Nov. 26.


Abourezk, who is of Arab descent, was a Democratic U.S. senator from 1973 to 1979 and now practices law in Sioux Falls. He accused ProBush.com of libel for putting him on a “traitor's list” for criticizing President Bush.


Specific terms of the settlement were not revealed. But Ronald Parsons Jr., a Sioux Falls lawyer representing ProBush.com, said the financial award to Abourezk was nominal: $1.


“He can say he made his point, I think,” Parsons said.


Abourezk had sued for $2 million in actual damages, $3 million in punitive damages and a retraction.


Also named as defendants were Michael Marino, the site's editor and publisher, and Ben Marino, co-owner. ProBush.com is headquartered in West Point, Penn., according to court documents.


Two other people on the list, Jane Fonda and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, were added as plaintiffs after the case was filed in 2003. Fonda is an actress and civil activist known for her opposition of the Vietnam War. Dunbar-Ortiz is an author, historian, professor and leader in the women's movement.


The former senator, who has been critical of the war in Iraq, was part of a four-person delegation that traveled to Syria and Iraq in 2002.


ProBush.com said in court documents that the First Amendment protects political statements such as those on the Web site, labeling the list “satirical and politically expressive.”


Atop the “traitor list” page is this statement: “Parody. Not to be taken seriously. These 'traitors' are not legal traitors of the United States.”


Pictures of Fonda and Dunbar-Ortiz were still on the “traitor list” today. But Abourezk's picture had been removed, and a statement at the top of the list read:


“As some of you may know, former United States Senator Jim Abourezk sued this website based upon his inclusion on the 'Traitor List.' Although we did not know who he was at the time, Senator Abourezk was placed on the Traitor List in 2003 along with all celebrity signatories of the famous 'Not In our Name' Petition opposing the invasion of Iraq. We believe that the content of this website is fully protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, we have now had the chance to meet Senator Abourezk and learn a little bit about his life. We like him, and believe that he (is) a truly patriotic America(n). We admire him for serving his country and for having the courage to speak out for what he believes in. After all, that is what the First Amendment is all about. Therefore, we have reached an agreement with Senator Abourezk to settle the lawsuit and remove him from the Traitor List.”


Parsons said posting the statement was part of the settlement.


“My clients … strongly believe in the First Amendment; that their speech is protected by the First Amendment,” Parsons said. “On the other hand, they respect Senator Abourezk and they respect that he served his country. They're glad this is behind them.”


“I'd say it (settlement) was kind of a mutual cease fire, is how I would describe it,” Parsons said. “I think both sides had valid points to make and both sides, I think, vindicated what they were trying to accomplish.”


Parsons said it was important to make sure people have the same freedom of expression on the Internet as they have in a newspaper or on a street corner.


But the appropriate regulations apply, he added. “You certainly cannot defame people without consequences, but in this case, the messages were intended to political commentary, satire, that type of thing. We believe it is fully protected by the First Amendment.”


Parsons said the settlement, which was filed on Nov. 23 in Sioux Falls federal court, did not include any admission that what was on the Web site is not fully protected by the First Amendment. “And in fact the (settlement) language that we negotiated is going to acknowledge that,” Parsons said.


Todd Epp, who represented Fonda and Dunbar-Ortiz, said he could not disclose the terms other than to say the settlement was “amicable.”


“I think my clients, Roxanne and Jane, are glad that it has come to an end. I think they feel that based on Judge (Lawrence) Piersol's ruling that it was going to go to court, that they had presented a good case. On the other hand, I think everyone decided it was not in anyone's best interest to proceed any further.”


The plaintiffs “felt their good names were besmirched” by ProBush.com, Epp said.


First Amendment rights include responsibilities, Epp said. “Those responsibilities include not defaming people. Just because you write something on the Internet doesn't mean the laws of defamation don't apply. They do apply.”


The traitor list, a trademark of ProBush.com, contains dozens of other people.

Tags: , , ,