Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit against far right group that accused state senator of being a ‘groomer’
LINCOLN — State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said she is reviewing her options after a judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit against a far-right group that had accused her of abusing and sexually grooming her son.
“No mother, regardless of whether they are an elected official or not, should be accused of abusing their children when there is absolutely no basis in fact,” Hunt said.
The accusation, in several tweets by the Nebraska Freedom Coalition, resulted in “physical threats” against the senator in emails, including one that stated that her genitalia should be cut off and another saying she should be publicly executed.
Douglas County District Judge Todd Engleman, in a 15-page ruling, wrote that the “mocking, exagerrated tone” of the tweets by the Freedom Coalition demonstrated that “the tweets are not meant to be read literally.”
” … They are of the same type of statements that are ‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ which the United States Supreme Court has found to be protected opinion,” the judge wrote, citing a 1990 opinion in the case, Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.
‘Assertions of opinion rather than fact’
Thus, Engleman ruled, “as a matter of law … these tweets are assertions of opinion rather than fact.”
The judge cited the language in the landmark, 1964 defamation ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which stated that the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open … may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on … public officials.”
In a tweet, the Freedom Coalition called Wednesday’s ruling a victory for free speech and the First Amendment.
“This landmark ruling underscores the fundamental principles of open and robust debate on public issues and reinforces the right of citizens to express their opinions without fear of legal reprisal,” the tweet said.
The Freedom Coalition’s tweets came after Hunt, in March, provided personal testimony during legislative debate about how a measure to ban gender-affirming care for youths would affect her family. Hunt has a transgender son.
Bill joined with abortion measure
Legislative Bill 574 was later passed by the State Legislature after it was joined with a measure banning abortion after 12 weeks of gestational age.
The merging of the two bills served to increase support for the measures, which required votes from 33 of the Legislature’s 49 senators to overcome a filibuster led by Hunt and others. LB 574 is now being challenged in court by supporters of abortion rights.