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‘Family Values’ PAC moves to dismiss defamation case from former state senator


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of a political action committee say they didn’t defame a former state senator in ad they ran during the 2016 general election.

Chris Walters

An attorney for West Virginia Family Values said Wednesday the ad against former Sen. Chris Walters was political speech, because it was about a politician during an election, and therefore protected by the first amendment. That was part of a motion to dismiss Walters’ defamation lawsuit against the committee.

Attorneys Sean McGinley, on behalf of the committee, and Alan Pritt, on behalf of Walters, presented their arguments before Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster Wednesday afternoon.

West Virginia Family Values and Katz Radio Group, a Pennsylvania-based company, are named as defendants in the suit, but Katz Radio Group wasn’t represented in the hearing Wednesday.

In addition to his argument that the ad was political and protected speech, McGinley said the phrase in the ad that is the focus of the lawsuit isn’t about Walters and is true.

“You can’t, just because you want to put a stop to somebody criticizing you while you’re in office, you can’t just file a libel claim,” McGinley said. “There are much higher standards.”

The narrator in the ad mentioned Walters by name at least four times and referred to him as having tried to “sneak in legislation to give a lobbyist an exclusive business deal,” and about the lobbyist later making donations to Walters campaign, according to a transcript of the full ad provided to the Gazette-Mail from the committee.

The narrator in the ad also referred to Walters voting to cut wages for workers because of his support for prevailing wage legislation during the 2015 session.

Walters doesn’t contest those phrases in his lawsuit, but he said one phrase in the ad was meant to mislead people who heard it.

After saying Walters’ name three times, the ad the narrator said, “and their leader in the senate, he testified in court on behalf of a convicted child molester, called this sexual predator, trustworthy,”

Both attorneys agreed on Wednesday that the “leader in the Senate” to whom the ad referred was Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who was Senate Majority Leader at the time the ad was on-air, but Carmichael’s name was not mentioned in the original ad.

After Walters’ attorney sent a cease and desist letter to Katz Radio Group on Oct. 21, 2016, the ad in question was altered to add Carmichael’s name, according to the lawsuit.

Both attorneys agreed the statements in the ad were true, but Pritt’s argument against dismissing the case was that legal precedent shows a statement has to be false or misleading to qualify as defamation against Walters.

Even if a statement is true, Pritt said, the fact that it is misleading qualifies as defamation, even though there is a higher standard to prove defamation against Walters, since he was a public official at the time the ad aired.

“It easily passes the bar,” Pritt said. “The phrase — the point of contention — is, ‘He testified in court on behalf of a convicted child molester.’ … The intent was to mislead the listener to inferring that ‘he’ is Sen. Walters, that Sen. Walters testified on behalf of a child molester.”

Webster on Wednesday asked attorneys to file their documentation relevant to the motion by Monday, Sept. 18, before she issued a ruling on the motion.

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