RENO, Nev. (AP) — Social media comments about protecting bears that were posted by Lake Tahoe activists referring to a longtime wildlife biologist as a murderer constitute “good faith communications” protected as free speech, the Nevada Supreme Court says.
The recent opinion doesn’t end a lawsuit filed in Washoe County District Court in Reno.
But it settles a key legal question in the dispute between Carl Lackey, a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist, and Carolyn Stark, who administers a Facebook page that posts criticism of the state’s bear control tactics, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.
The lawsuit is the latest development in a yearslong legal and public relations battle between the agency and a group of activists who oppose state methods for managing bears. In 2018, a judge issued a protective order to keep Stark, who lives in the community of Incline Village, away from another state biologist who says Stark stalked her in a dispute over the capture of nuisance bears.
The high court’s opinion is a victory for Stark, who argued she was being unjustly targeted for her activism, and a setback for Lackey, who claims harm from the hostile posts.
“It is a free speech friendly ruling,” Patrick File, an assistant professor of media law at University of Nevada, Reno, told the newspaper.
Lackey, the state’s point person dealing with conflicts between bears and people, filed a defamation lawsuit in 2017 against Stark, the Bear League activist group and two others. It accused them of mounting a “vicious and calculated effort to damage his reputation and jeopardize his employment.”
Although the named defendants didn’t necessarily write the Facebook posts, Lackey argued they’re ultimately responsible for repeated comments that are false and “designed to incite public rage.”
The activists said their criticism of Lackey’s trapping and occasional euthanizing of black bears was constitutionally protected free speech about a volatile public controversy. They maintain the bears have as much right to the woods as the tourists and the expansive summer homes that encroach on their native habitat in the Sierra Nevada.
Lackey long has blamed humans, not the bears, for the conflicts usually traced to people who fail to properly secure their garbage. For years, he’s pushed unsuccessfully for ordinances mandating bear-proof trash bins to guard against the animals, which sometimes break into cars and homes — especially during drought years — to satisfy their daily caloric intake equivalent to 80 cheeseburgers.
Some of the Facebook posts were anonymous, but most carried names. The most inflammatory accused Lackey of “murdering” bears and suggested it was “maybe time for an assassination.” One posted Lackey’s home address and said he should be jailed.
The Feb. 27 Supreme Court ruling overturns a Washoe County judge’s decision on a motion filed by Stark.
Stark had argued Lackey’s lawsuit should be dismissed based on a state law intended to discourage officials and other powerful people from shutting down critics by filing baseless lawsuits that drain their resources. The judge denied Stark’s request.
Stark’s appeal to the high court said the statements on the Facebook page were about matters of public concern.
“It is abundantly clear that Lackey has brought this suit against Stark to bully and intimidate Stark into removing her wildlife advocacy Facebook page because Lackey simply doesn’t like the viewpoint it presents,” her lawyer argued.
The Supreme Court concluded comments about Lackey and other officials were related to the public’s interest in wildlife management.
“Just because the comment presented a hypothetical about Lackey’s conduct, it does not follow that it was not directly related to the public interest,” Justice James Hardesty wrote with concurrence from six other justices.
Hardesty said Stark’s claims that her own posts were true and that she believed other people’s posts were opinions or contained “substantial truth” constituted sufficient evidence that the “statements were truthful or made without knowledge of their falsehood.”