Gaudette v. Mainely Media, 2017 ME 87 (Maine SJC) May 9, 2017
Gaudette v. Davis, 2017 ME 86 (Maine SJC) May 9, 2017
The Defamation Case Against the Media
Norman Gaudette, a retired detective with the Biddeford, Maine police department, was the subject of an internal investigation, a Maine Attorney General investigation, and a grand jury investigation in 1991 concerning allegations that he had sexually abused teenage boys.
The grand jury did not indict Gaudette, who continued to work for the Biddeford police department until his retirement in 2001.
Fourteen years later, social media posts appeared alleging sexual abuse by police officers other than Gaudette.
Reporters for a local paper owned by Mainely Media covered the new allegations, including publishing reports by Gaudett’es alleged victims and Terry Davis, the police officer who originally made allegations against Gaudette in 1990.
Public meetings ensued among angry citizens and state and local officials.
The 2015 allegations and reporting included statements from the original complaining officer, who said a teen made an allegation against Gaudette at the police station and that other possible victims had been identified. However, at the grand jury hearing, the assistant attorney general intimated that Davis could not manage the investigation because Davis’ father committed suicide after an allegation of sexual abuse was made against him. Davis said that the assistant attorney general later apologized and confessed to purposely throwing the case on orders from superiors.
Mainely Media sought to avail itself of the state anti-SLAPP statute, but dismisal was denied. The trial court noted that the applicability of the anti-SLAPP statute to the media had not been settled, but that Gaudette had shown that any protected petition activity by Mainely media was devoid of reasonable factual support.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court concluded, as had neighboring Massachusetts, that the ‘petition’ protections afforded by anti-SLAPP statutes apply to the media in the exercise of their own rights, not when reporting on matters of general concern, even where others may be engaged in protected petition activity.
The point of anti-Slapp protections is to ensure that speech is not chilled in the exercise of First Amendment rights to petition the government. The intent is to afford prompt dismissal where appropriate and to diminish fear of costly litigation by special procedures to address petition questions.
While petition protections are expansive: protection may extend to editorial submissions on public controversies or to letters to city council members. Statements made to newspapers may be shielded, and statements by attorneys as agents of their clients may be protected.
The critical issue is the activity of the person or entity seeking anti-SLAPP dismissal. Documentation of current events or reporting on others’ petition activities is not the reporting entity’s petition activity.
The Case Against the Individual Police Officer Defendant
Concurrently with addressing the applicability of anti-SLAPP statutes to media reporting, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court considered an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss submitted by Terry Davis, the officer who originally complained against Gaudette.
The court observed that anti-SLAPP measures reflect an inherent tension between speech rights, including the right to access courts, and petition rights. The court noted its discontent with the procedures upheld in earlier cases, which first required evidence sufficient to meet the summary judgment standard and next required only some admissible evidence to show that a moving defendant’s acts had no reasonable support in fact or law.
The court offered its view that neither standard balances effectively the interests of each party, and determined that going forward, if a party is able to provide some evidence defeating some or all of the others’ claims, if requested brief discovery limited to anti-SLAPP issues may be had, followed by a court’s determination whether opposition to any anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss has been established by a preponderance of the evidence. Issues for which prima facie proof was not earlier provided would drop out from the post-discovery evidentiary hearing.
The court found that Davis had shown that his activity relating to sexual abuse of minors affected policy broadly related to petition activity. Gaudette introduced information showing that the attorney general said that Davis’ statements were false.
Because the trial court used earlier standards, remand was ordered.
One judge dissented, opining that the “new procedure” was the province of the legislature and that, by requiring an evidentiary hearing according to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, the merits were implicated, and, as such, infringed upon jury trial rights, a concern expressed by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.. Moreover, the majority’s view that the legislature wanted petition activity to be preferred to redress was ill-founded — the only legislative intend was to guard against meritless litigation: perfect balance is not required. By adding an additional procedure, the majority undermines the efficiencies that the measures were intended to address.