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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ron Price lawsuit abuse shows North Carolina need for anti-SLAPP legislation

The more I think about how disgraced school board member/admitted sign stealer Ron Price's lawsuit against the Moores ended (click here for more info, including links to the sworn depositions that the Moores, Price, and Yours Truly gave), the more I'm feeling honked-off to no end about it.

The man is certainly living up to his county-wide nickname of "Ron the Con" (one that I have heard bandied about everywhere from church to the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Eden). Ladies and gentlemen, I posit that the whole sordid drama of this past year has been a massive charade perpetrated by Price and his attorney Douglas Hux. Because this lawsuit had nothing to do with seeking damages for legitimate libel. But it did have everything to do with an elected official using the law to intimidate and silence those who disagree with him.

Does anyone believe that Ron Price would have given up so easily, if he knew beyond all doubt that he possessed such a strong case against Richard and Debbie Moore?

Okay, let me ask this out loud: did Ron Price himself seriously believe that he could sincerely expect a judgment of a quarter-million dollars to be granted in his favor by a jury in a court of law, based on what was said about him in The Neely Chronicle and on WGSR?

I don't believe that Price was out for the money at all. But he was out to make Richard and Debbie Moore spend lots and lots of theirs.

Heck, Price practically admitted as much to The Reidsville Review: "I think we reached our goal", he told the newspaper. For once he wasn't lying, folks. The goal was never to achieve a quarter-million dollars judgment. But the goal was to keep the sword of veritable bankruptcy poised over the Moores' heads by compelling them to spend money on legal defense.

There is something very, very wrong with a system that allows a politician, a corporation, or any other entity to effectively shut-down critics by using a frivolous lawsuit to force those of lesser means into giving up their fight. In that regard, Ron Price did win: Political Soup, one of WGSR's most-watched shows, is no longer on the air (that alone has earned Price more loathing from people in Rockingham County than he would like to know).

Think about that for a moment: a government official - and one who admitted to taking something that wasn't his for the purpose of manipulating an election - has successfully abused the law in order to silence his critics and punish them for speaking out against him.

If that is not an example of tyranny, however localized, then I don't know what is. This kind of thing is supposed to happen in fourth-world banana republics, not Rockingham County.

I doubt that Ron Price feels any guilt or grief about it however. He's certainly of the "neo-conservative" stripe that believes he can get away with anything because God has supposedly "anointed" him, or as he put it "but I was elected."

This was the first time that to my knowledge a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) has happened in Rockingham County. I've never liked the idea of a SLAPP action and now that I've seen it firsthand, my hatred for the concept has grown immensely.

Currently, North Carolina does not have anti-SLAPP legislation on the books. Richard Moore is reporting on his website that in the wake of the Price lawsuit winding-down, that he is contacting members of the North Carolina state legislature about the matter. Since Richard does not believe much in archiving his own website (sigh), it falls to me to publish his salient points for posterity...

The final total is not in yet, but it looks like Price's vindictive lawsuit is going to end up costing us between $7,500 and $8,000. Contrary to the mythology, freedom of speech is only available to those who can afford it. It is now apparent that Debbie and I are not people who can afford freedom of speech, which is why Political Soup and the Neely Chronicle will not be returning.

Ron Price lost his lawsuit, but he has accomplished his mission ("I think we reached our goal"), and I have learned a painful lesson about being involved in political and governmental matters.

If Price had won his lawsuit, however unlikely, Debbie and I would have been stripped of everything we own - no money, no home. no cars, no furniture, no appliances, no clothes - nothing. For calling an elected official who stole campaign signs a thief, we would have been left standing naked on the side of the road without even a tin cup.

If the lawsuit had gone to trial and we had won, the cost of successfully defending ourselves would have left us financially ruined. Due to Price's magnanimous decision to dismiss the lawsuit, our finances are merely seriously mangled. Ron Price can now do a victory lap around the Rockingham County School Board dais. Maybe drink some champagne and drape himself in roses while Celeste and Wayne anoint his feet with oil.

Ron Price has defeated me, even though he lost his lawsuit. The newcomer has managed to do what many old-timers have tried and failed. W.L. Pryor, Don Moss, Wink Hoover, Jeff Sykes, Jeff Eanes, George Fleetwood, David Wise, James Festerman, John Henderson, Celeste DePriest, and many others were unable to budge me from my pompous little political pulpit. But the dark and handsome stranger from Florida figured out a way to hand me my head in short order. Reckless Ron dared go where no one else would.

Hail to Mr. Ronald Filer Price. I am a beaten man. I surrender unto Caesar.

Despite the fact that Ron Price will be hailed as a conquering hero by some folks, particularly those on the Rockingham County School Board and in local government, something is very wrong with a legal system that makes such things possible. In most states, this sort of lawsuit would not be filed because it would be too financially risky for a plaintiff to roll the dice on such a weak case.

The majority of states now have what are called "anti-SLAPP" laws. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. A SLAPP lawsuit is typically filed by a public official, sometimes by a land developer or someone seeking approval for a project, who uses a SLAPP to silence his critics. In states with "anti-SLAPP" laws, a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit has to assume the risk of paying the defendant's legal fees if the defendant is found not guilty. Thanks to mass communications, most people think that's the way it works everywhere.

Unfortunately, in North Carolina, there are no "anti-SLAPP" laws. If someone, like a school board member, doesn't like what you are saying, he can sue you without taking any risk. If the case makes it to trial and you are found not guilty because there never was any merit to the lawsuit, you are still saddled with paying for your defense. The plaintiff simply has to find an attorney who will work on contingency - it only costs the plaintiff a third of whatever he wins in the lawsuit. If the plaintiff's attorney doesn't win the case, then the plaintiff owes nothing. If the plaintiff does win, then he and his lawyer could both strike it rich. The defendant's ass is financially busted either way it goes.

North Carolina is one of only a few states where it is possible for an elected official to use the legal system to silence his critics without taking any financial risk. The First Amendment doesn't shield you from the financial punishment that North Carolina's legal system and a vindictive public official can dish out.

The conventional wisdom has long been "anyone can sue you for anything, but that doesn't mean they will win or be able to collect if they do win." The conventional wisdom, which was probably meant to bolster the confidence of people who would dare criticize a public official, left out a very important detail. It fails to take into account what it will cost you to defend yourself against a frivolous lawsuit filed in North Carolina. Conventional wisdom does not apply in North Carolina.

It is ironic that a confessed thief can skate right through our legal system, but his accusers end up paying a heavy fine. Excuse me if I look the other way the next time I see someone committing a crime, but I don't want to lose my home and I'm sure you don't want to see me standing naked on the side of the highway. I now completely understand why people say "I don't want to get involved" or "Please don't use my name."

Take my advice - don't get involved, mind your own business, let our public officials do whatever they want, and keep your mouth shut about it. My advice to you is now my personal policy.

Ron Price lost his lawsuit, but there is no victor in the suit. Debbie and I are certainly not victors. We are not crowing about beating "ol' Ron", as "ol' Ron" said we would. We have nothing to crow about. We've had the shite kicked out of us by "ol' Ron" and we're tired, very tired.

We are not ashamed of what we did, nor do we fear the truth, but we'll never again complain about a public official, or government employee stealing campaign signs, or embezzling money, or dong anything wrong again. "Ol' Ron" and the North Carolina legal system have taught us a lesson we'll not ever forget.

Freedom has taken a much worse beating than Ron Price and our wallets. Our lawmakers should be ashamed for allowing this threat to liberty to exist and thrive in our state. But, our lawmakers are probably glad to have the right to do some SLAPPing of their own should it become necessary to shut someone up. SLAPPING is a convenient and effective way to get around the First Amendment.

The above commentary has been sent to our state legislators in hopes of bringing some much needed reform to our state's legal system. I will let you know if any of them bother to respond.

So far, Richard is reporting that Representative Nelson Cole and Representative Bryan Holloway have responded and are "exploring new laws to prevent vindictive public officials from violating the First Amendment by filing frivolous lawsuits to silence their critics".

They really need to push for this. Because if it could happen to Richard and Debbie Moore, it could happen to you. It could happen to me. Actually it's probably happening to me already: I'm expecting a knock on the door any day now and a deputy sheriff serving me with a lawsuit. Or maybe Price will do the smart thing and forget about it... 'cuz you don't mess with a man crazy enough to blow up a schoolhouse in order to run for board of education.

All I'll say for now is: if Ron Price does hit me with a lawsuit, there's a whole new video already hosted on YouTube - that no one from the public can see yet - that is just waiting to be unleashed. And it's all about Ron Price. And it will have everyone EVERYWHERE laughing at him for all eternity.

That's my own perverse "insurance" against more legal abuse like what Price has already done against the Moores. But in the meantime, if you live in North Carolina, do the right thing: contact your state representatives and senators and tell them that frivolous lawsuit abuse must end. Because it costs regular people a lot more than money: it also costs them their rights... which we only have because many people fought and even died so that we might have them to begin with.


Anonymous said...

Well, that is what is between the lines of all this, as we no doubt know. But thank you Chris for spelling it out in your post here. It all does make one wonder if Mr. Price and his attorney, Mr. Hux, had any intention of seeing this case to trial and a jury,from the start. Truly doubtful I would say. Maybe the American Bar Association and the NC Bar need to investigate this particular circus of "litigation" in our county. I smell a real stinky rat. Do y'all? Pee-yeeewwww. Afterall, in reading the Plaintiff's charges in the depositions I felt they were just going through the motions, knowing they had no intentions of a trial ; while the defendants' attorney seemed most vigorous in defending his clients as he charged the Plaintiff in the deposition. I have posted twice. Anybody getting my drift and hint about what needs to be done next as a formal complaint. It may not help, or be successful, but it can't hurt either. Play their own little game right back at them. Eureka!

Anonymous said...

PS---We all know this is a suit that never should have been filed. Reputable lawyers would say, forget it, go home. I ain't touching this. Get on with your life....you're a public official---deal with it. You ran, you won, now accept public and media scruntiny.Tough.
Remember my humble advice---delve into this---investigate---formally complain. Have their side looked into by the powers that oversee them. Maybe the Moores can somehow be reimbursed for their needless expense. But might be worth the complaint, regardless---and just for the record.

Anonymous said...

Is "hates evil" suggesting a complaint against Doug Hux be filed with the NC Bar?

Anonymous said...

rockingham County has an ol'Boys club when you deal with Attorneys. Look at the 2 judges we have, great example. Remember we have 2 sts of lawa one for us regular people and one for the politicians. Good luck, happy new year!

Anonymous said...

Rockingham County has an ol'Boys club when you deal with Attorneys. Look at the 2 judges we have, great example. Remember we have 2 sts of lawa one for us regular people and one for the politicians. Good luck, happy new year!