Pro-Life Group Seeks Attorney Fees Against Former Republican State Representative

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Late yesterday, Oregon Right to Life and others asked the Oregon Court of Appeals to order former Republican State Representative Matt Wingard to pay them $235,000 in attorney fees for wrongfully suing them for defamation. This request comes on the heels of the Oregon Court of Appeals’ ruling that Wingard had failed to show that the defamation case he filed against the groups had any legal merit.

The suit by Wingard was filed in June, 2016 against Oregon Right to Life and others after he lost the Republican primary. In the run-up to the 2016 Republican primary, Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council sent out several mailers reminding voters that Wingard’s last tenure as State Representative had ended with him admitting to a sexual relationship with a 20 year old legislative aide, a relationship that the woman consistently described as “pressured.” The scandal was widely reported in 2012, when Wingard resigned his House leadership position and declined to run for reelection, and again in 2016, when Wingard filed for election in his old State Representative seat. Because both Wingard and the legislative aide acknowledged that the relationship was “consensual,” Wingard claimed that it was defamatory for Oregon Right to Life to also repeat the legislative aide’s claim that she was pressured to have sex with him.

Reconizing that the suit was meritless and designed only to silence criticism of Wingard during a primary election campaign, Oregon Right to Life filed a motion to dismiss Wingard’s suit under Oregon’s “anti-SLAPP” law (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to give defendants an early chance to throw out unfounded claims whose sole purpose is to punish and chill First Amendment protected spLate last month, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that Wingard’s case was based on protected political speech during an election and was indeed without merit, ruling that “no reasonable factfinder” could find that the groups knew or should have know that their statement about Wingard pressuring the young intern for sex was false. Yesterday, the victorious defendants asked the court for $235,000 in attorney’s fees against Wingard, as provided by the anti-SLAPP statute.

“The Oregon legislature knew that for its anti-SLAPP law to have real teeth in protecting First Amendment speech, it must require parties filing meritless law suits to pay the legal fees of those they attack,” says James Bopp, Jr., lead counsel for the groups. “The Oregon Court of Appeals’ ruling in favor of Oregon Right to Life vindicates free speech and helps ensure that groups can criticize politicians and their government without fear of baseless and costly civil litigation.”

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