Update, 2/1, 10:15am: BREAKING: In Split Decision, Supreme Court Finds Wendy Rogers Attack Ad Did Not Defame Modeling Agency Owner By Implying Opponent Was Creepy (READ Opinion)
A closely-divided Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of now-State Senator Wendy Rogers in a defamation case stemming from her 2018 attack ads against then-State Senator Steve Smith, implying that he was creepy because the modeling agency he worked with represented underage girls while also advertising on sites with ties to sex trafficking.
Justice Clint Bolick wrote the opinion for the majority. He began with the declaration: "We decide today that the First Amendment precludes a defamation action based on a political advertisement directed at an opposing candidate, in which the third-party plaintiff is unnamed, the alleged defamation is not expressed but only implied, and the asserted implication is not one that would likely be drawn by a reasonable listener."
Smith worked with the Young Agency, and Pamela Young brought the defamation action after the 2018 election (which Rogers lost). The trial court had refused to grant summary judgment for Rogers, finding that a jury should decide whether defamation had occurred. The Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled in Rogers' favor. Today's opinion agrees with that decision, but vacates the Court of Appeals' reasoning.
The brief dissent, authored by Vice Chief Justice Ann Timmer, also wasted no time pulling punches: "In its zeal to shelter political mudslinging under First Amendment freedoms, the majority abandons private individuals caught in the crossfire and effectively displaces the jury in cases involving implied defamation against unnamed, yet readily identifiable, people. Because Rogers’ radio advertisement here permitted a reasonable factfinder to conclude that it implied as a matter of actual fact that Young Agency was complicit in sex trafficking girls, a fact provable as false, the trial court properly denied Rogers’ motion for summary judgment."
Original article, 1/31, 10:50am: COMING SOON: AZ Supreme Court Ready To Rule In Wendy Rogers Defamation Case; May Impact Candidates' Campaign Ads
The Arizona Supreme Court is poised to issue its opinion tomorrow in a defamation case against now-State Senator Wendy Rogers, and the ruling could impact attack ads in campaigns to come.
In 2018, Rogers unleashed lethal attacks against then-State Senator Steve Smith in the Republican primary for Congress. (They were seeking to oppose Rep. Tom O'Halleran.) The defamation suit was brought by the owner of the talent agency which Smith worked with - Rogers' implied a connection between Smith and the trafficking of underage girls.
The trial court had refused to grant Rogers' summary judgment motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed and said that her attack ads did not defame the modeling agency owner. If the Supreme Court affirms that decision, it may indicate that statements made in campaign materials or ads cannot be understood as assertions of fact. If the Supreme Court rejects that and sides with the trial judge, it would be up to a jury to decide if the Rogers ad was defamatory.
This article was reported by AZ Law founder Paul Weich. Paul is currently running for a seat in Arizona's House of Representatives.
"AZ Law" includes articles, commentaries and updates about opinions from the Arizona Supreme Court, U.S. Supreme Court, as well as trial and appellate courts, etc. AZ Law is founded by Phoenix attorney Paul Weich, and joins Arizona's Politics on the internet.