Two city of Ashland employees were victorious this week in a defamation suit against former restaurateur Robert Batchelor.
City employees Chris Pullem and Brian Clark sued Batchelor for an explosive, lengthy online posting that Batchelor posted on Facebook. The lengthy missive made multiple allegations that went viral on social media. The posting falsely claimed Pullem -- the city's economic development director -- of all kinds of things, from transporting and selling alcohol at fundraising events without paying taxes on sales to allegations that Pullem, on behalf of the city, bought the former Nobil building on Winchester Avenue and then sold it at a loss after expensive renovations. Batchelor made another false allegation that Pullem illegally sent grant money to out of town associates at three times the rate of local contractors. Batchelor also accused Clark of illegally accessing law enforcement databases to access details on Batchelor's arrest record and transporting alcohol Clark of illegally transporting and selling alcohol at fundraising events without paying taxes.
The jury determined all of this was false. Simply not true. And, they found Batchelor liable to the tune of $75,000 owed to Pullem and $750 to Clark.
Pullem said his reputation was severely damaged by the Facebook rant. Clark and his wife, Amanda Clark, said Brian Clark was damaged as well.
“I’m obviously pleased with the verdict. It sends a message you can’t just say whatever you want about people and get away with it,” Pullem said.
“It just felt good. I appreciate that 12 people took the time to listen to us and to understand everything we’ve gone through over the past couple of years,” Clark said.
Batchelor defended himself in court (never wise, to say the least). His defense was that the posts were critical of government and a free speech issue. The jury rejected this.
Before we get to the real purpose of this editorial, we would be remiss if we didn't note that this lawsuit was initially funded by the taxpayer. The city of Ashland gave then private attorney Jim Moore $5,000 to explore this lawsuit. Batchelor countersued and the Kentucky League of Cities ended up paying the legal bill for the city's legal defense, while Pullem and Clark paid for their own portion of the litigation.
We credit Pullem and Clark for paying their way, but to state the obvious, whoever came up with the idea to use city money to fund a civil lawsuit like this made a very serious error in judgement. It is a significant mistake. This is not what taxpayer money is for. The city should put measures in place internally to make sure this type of questionable decision is never made again. One must presume the city's decision to immerse itself in this litigation opened up the city to the possibility of major legal expenses that it would likely not have otherwise faced. This is our view, and it is formulated on behalf of the taxpayer. We think, in retrospect, that the municipality is very fortunate the Kentucky League of Cities picked up this legal bill whatever that number may be.
The most important fact, though, in all of this, is certainly not about $5,000.
It is about public reputations.
One has the right in this country to not be maligned, their reputations damaged possibly forever, by unsupported, non factual rants. There is a very clear message here sent by the jury -- you can't maliciously slur and shred peoples' reputations without consequence. Criticizing government officials is always fair game. We will support fair comment and criticism all day long, and you can criticize people and be wrong. You cannot, however, do it maliciously, knowing that what you are saying is false. This nation is still a nation of laws and civil rules aimed at upholding societal standards of decency and fairness.
People have a right to not have their names and reputations damaged based on malicious falsehoods.
We are reminded that words most certainly matter. Even on Facebook.