VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — How far can you go in political commercials and direct mail to voters?
That played out in a Virginia Beach court case. A candidate for Virginia State Senate is accused in a defamation case for campaign advertising when she ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017.
Delegate Cheryl Turpin (D-85th District) is finding herself a defendant in a defamation lawsuit 15 days before election day. She wasn’t in court, but her attorneys were.
At issue was a direct mail piece against her by then Delegate Rocky Holcomb, whom she beat. She is now running for State Senate, and Holcomb is running to get his old seat back after she beat him in 2017. One reason why Holcomb says he lost is that Turpin aligned him with someone she defined as a leader of a local hate group.
10 On Your Side’s interviewed Scott Presler before. In fact we were there on June 11, 2017, when he organized a rally at Mount Trashmore. You could hear him on a loudspeaker system talking about Muslims: “Act for America is not anti-Muslim. We are not radical Islam, and there’s a big difference,” he said to great applause.
At the time he was the local leader of Act for America, thought to be anti-Muslim. Cheryl Turpin’s campaign mailer stated he was the leader of a local hate group, which is an opinion, and opinions are protected by the First Amendment in political campaigns.
Presler filed a defamation lawsuit against Delegate Turpin and her campaign manager Daniel McNamara.
“The First Amendment should protect speech, political speech for a public figure,” said their attorney Jeffrey Breit. “Clearly, he is a public figure. He is the activist for a group, he is the coordinator for this group.”
Presler says he is not a public figure. He was not the candidate. His lawyer Rhiannon Jordan did not want to comment, but she argued in court that Turpin’s First Amendment protection for the mail piece should not apply, and that Presler was maligned by Turpin’s statements that he had a joint rally with a known Neo-Nazi.
Jordan argued that is something that can be proven false. Along with that are other charges made by Turpin that Jordan says can be proven false and knowingly false, which is the test for defamation. They include: “some of their speakers were also participates in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville Virginia, Delegate Rocky Holcomb proudly campaigns with a local hate group leader, Presler is the leader of a local hate group, Presler coordinated a joint rally with a known neo-Nazi, Presler and his group have often worked with and invited neo-Nazs and white supremacists to speak at their rallies, like the rally held right here in our district in Mount Trashmore on June 10th.”
Turpin’s legal team also points out Presler injected himself into the public arena by quotes as an official defending ACT. “Mr. Presler posted on Facebook videos endorsing Mr. Holcomb and supporting Mr. Holcomb,” says Turpin’s other attorney, Kevin Biniazan, “Those are the allegations, that he has been maligned, and that’s what it states in the complaint, but even given those allegations the judges ruled those allegations are not sufficient to address a prejudice in his profession or his ability to perform his job as a political activist, which is what he says he is … he has not been damaged.”
Judge Pamela Baskervill dismissed three of Presler’s four counts against Turpin, but has taken the fourth and most important, defamation, under advisement in part because of the issues above that can be proven true or false.
In politics, opinions are protected by the First Amendment, so to say that someone is a leader of a hate group is protected because it is an opinion. A hate group is an opinion. Some think it is a hate group, and some may not.
If it weren’t protected speech then every claim in a campaign could be questioned as defaming. “And as I told the judge that is a slippery slope,” Breit said.
Holcomb says he does not know Presler and only had the picture because as a candidate he takes pictures with supporters. Holcomb sent this statement:
“We believe in due process and the ability of the courts to remedy this. We are focused on our election in two weeks and talking to the voters of the 85th District about creating jobs, freezing college tuition, and lowering healthcare costs.”