English Drops $10 on Legal Defense

Posted June 13, 2007 at 6:41pm

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) has established a legal defense fund — beginning with $10 of his own money — to respond to a suit filed by his 2004 and 2006 opponent, who claims the English campaign defamed him.

Democratic candidate Steven Porter filed a lawsuit in February, claiming that during the campaign, English knowingly and intentionally distorted passages from a philosophy text that Porter wrote in 1991 called the “Ethics of Democracy.”

In the book, Porter offers philosophical considerations of issues ranging from abortion to hunting, and leads students through an examination of several hot-button topics, including the ethical merits of offering some criminals voluntary sterilization before they are released.

English cited these passages repeatedly during the campaign, including in campaign literature. He told a Web site called PoliticsPA.com that “Mr. Porter’s efforts to politically rehabilitate eugenics is bizarre. … I find it a little hard to listen to a lecture on ‘reproductive freedom’ from a guy who wants to sterilize individuals suffering from alcoholism.”

According to Porter’s complaint, English and his campaign “knew at the time of their creation and publication that the statements, representations, publications, advertisements and quotations … were false.”

Porter said in an interview that during one campaign appearance, a Republican student group had printed posters of Porter’s face on the body of Nazi — a reference to the Nazi fascination with eugenics — which was the breaking point for him. He filed suit, he said, because, “This kind of campaigning has got to stop.”

“This kind of campaigning has harmed our nation,” Porter said. “He didn’t have the right to say that I wanted to sterilize welfare clients. He didn’t have the right to goad these kids into doing these things.”

English’s office declined to comment on the case, referring press inquiries to the attorney English has retained in Pennsylvania. The attorney was traveling and did not return calls requesting comment.

But other campaign lawyers suggested Porter will have a hard time wining his case.

Jan Baran, head of election law at the firm Wiley Rein, said “defamation cases are very nasty, and very difficult to win.” A plaintiff who is a political figure “would have to prove that the defendant made a knowingly false statement — with reckless disregard for the truth.”

Since Porter’s book does include a discussion of sterilization, he will have to show that English knew the book did not say what English claimed it said.

Marc Elias, an election lawyer at Perkins Coie, said “the courts have clearly held that there is no immunity from libel or slander just because you are in a campaign … [but] the standard for proving defamation against any public figure is a much taller order” than in a case involving private citizens.

While defamation cases from political campaigns are rare, they are not unheard of. Indeed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania threw out a defamation case against 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year. The case was filed by the filmmaker who had produced a film called “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal” attacking Kerry’s involvement with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and planned to show it shortly before the 2004 presidential election. Kerry and his supporters convinced television stations not to air the film; the filmmaker accused Kerry and others of defamation for questioning the accuracy and “journalistic integrity” of the film and the filmmaker.

The court ruled that while there are “limits to what can be said, even in a political campaign,” the rough and tumble of a political campaign creates some leeway. For instance, “in the context of a heated city council meeting, characterizing a statement as constituting ‘blackmail’ was not defamatory,” because listeners would not reasonably conclude that the speaker was alleging actual blackmail.

English created the legal defense fund in March and officially disclosed it to the House in a filing Tuesday with the Legislative Resource Center.

Porter said whatever the outcome of the suit, he has not ruled out a third campaign against English, though at the moment, he said, he is “leaning toward endorsing another candidate.”