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Company loses $5 million defamation suit against man

Tim Jones Chicago Tribune

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A Missouri appeals court panel threw out a multimillion-dollar defamation suit Tuesday against a suburban St. Louis man who publicly criticized a company’s plan to build a trash holding station in his neighborhood.

The panel, in a unanimous 3-0 opinion, said opposition leaflets describing the company, Fred Weber Inc., as “trash terrorists” did not suggest that employees of the company were terrorists intent on killing Americans, as the company’s complaint said.

The legal battle is being closely watched by free speech advocates because of the potential impact it could have on the rights of individuals to speak out at public hearings. The state court called the lawsuit “meritless” and said it considered the “chilling impact that might be suffered in public discourse” if the suit were allowed to proceed.

In dismissing the suit, the panel said, “The free exchange of ideas between citizens and government is a hallmark of democracy.”

Weber attorney Gary Feder said the company has not decided how it will proceed.

The Weber company filed a $5 million defamation suit against Thomas Diehl, of the south St. Louis suburb of Oakville, last year after Diehl successfully argued against the trash-holding site. In his testimony, Diehl never used the term “trash terrorists,” but the characterization appeared on opposition leaflets distributed outside the public hearing.

The court said “neither imaginative expression nor rhetorical hyperbole” represent grounds for defamation.

Defense lawyers have noted a nationwide trend of similar lawsuits, often referred to as SLAPP suits, or strategic litigation against public participation. Weber argued that its claim is not a SLAPP suit but a defamation case. This was the latest in a series of defamation claims filed in the St. Louis area against people who testified during public hearings or criticized the actions of others, including politicians.

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