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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Superintendent candidate’s voter guide sentence about sex education is false, court says

Chris Reykdal, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, talks to reporters in Olympia in this May 2017 photo. A Thurston County Superior Court judge last week sided with Reykdal on claims his opponent in the August primary, Maia Espinoza, had included defamatory information in her candidate statement.  (Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – A Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled last week that a sentence in candidate Maia Espinoza’s voter pamphlet statement regarding incumbent Superintendent for Public Instruction Chris Reykdal’s support for comprehensive sexual health education was defamatory and should be deleted.

The sentence states Reykdal championed a policy that teaches “sexual positions to 4th graders.” The sentence has since been removed from Espinoza’s statement online.

“There is absolutely nothing that I would ever teach like what candidate Espinoza said in her statement,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal filed a lawsuit three weeks ago against Espinoza and Secretary of State Kim Wyman, saying the sentence was false and Wyman’s office did not give him ample time to have it removed. A judge ruled in Reykdal’s favor last week, but Espinoza has already submitted an appeal, which will be heard by the Washington Supreme Court.

“It seems to me that it’s pretty clear,” Espinoza said. “It’s factual.”

Espinoza argued the age-appropriate curriculum that has been newly approved by the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction includes one with additional resources that shows sex positions. That is not age-appropriate, Espinoza said.

By supporting this curriculum, Espinoza said, Reykdal is championing the policy that shows fourth graders sex positions.

Espinoza’s attorney Joel Ard argued in court last week that the curriculum listed on OSPI’s office as being acceptable includes information that “can quite reasonably be described as showing and describing sexual positions.”

“Is this statement so far from the truth as to be actionable as defamation? It is not,” Ard said, according to a transcript. “It is the very exact truth.”

Reykdal argued the curriculum Espinoza mentions is a third-party source.

“Each link in the chain that she’s trying to create refutes the sweeping accusation she’s making in the voters’ pamphlet,” Reykdal’s attorney Taki Flevaris said in court last week, according to a transcript.

Reykdal called Espinoza’s claim absurd and said he is confident the court’s ruling will hold up in the appeal hearing.

State law allows candidates to submit petitions to the Thurston County Superior Court if they believe a statement in another candidate’s voter pamphlet is false or defamatory. The Secretary of State’s office has three days from when candidates submit their statements to notify a candidate that they have been mentioned in a voter pamphlet statement.

Not only was Espinoza’s statement false, Reykdal said, but the Secretary of State’s office waited 17 days to inform him. Candidates’ statements were due May 22, and according to court documents Reykdal did not receive a letter until June 12, which was dated June 8.

The judge ordered the Secretary of State’s office to remove the sentence from Espinoza’s statement online as well as direct county election officials to remove it from their printed pamphlets.

But Reykdal said it may be too late to remove it in some printed materials for the Aug. 4 primary.

According to court documents, Wyman said because of an unprecedented number of candidates, it took longer for her staff to comb through each voter statement.

But Reykdal said he felt he could’ve been notified sooner.

“She has resources,” he said. “The law states she needed to do it after three days.”

Since her campaign began, Espinoza has been outspoken against the comprehensive sexual health education bill that passed last session. The bill calls for age-appropriate comprehensive sexual health education at various points in a child’s education. The bill also allows parents to be notified when courses are taught, to view materials and to opt their children out.

Espinoza joined the Referendum 90 campaign, which received enough signatures to appear on the ballot in November.

Reykdal has supported comprehensive sexual health education, saying the curriculum has already been offered in many school districts, and the new law gives parents more protections than they might have had previously.

Espinoza argued the court’s decision infringes on her political speech, which is often a heavily protected form of free speech.

“It doesn’t feel right to be silenced by a well-connected politician,” she said.

However, Reykdal pointed to the Washington law that allows candidates to file a suit if they believe another candidate wrote a false or defamatory statement against them in their voter pamphlet. The pamphlet is a taxpayer-funded document that is meant to give truthful information to voters, he said.

“It has a higher expectation for truth and integrity, Reykdal said, “and the court’s clearly found this lacked truth and integrity.”

Espinoza said Reykdal’s support for this curriculum is something voters need to know, especially as Referendum 90 is voted on in November.

“At the end of the day, this is top-of-mind for voters, and he cannot distance himself,” she said.

A court date for the appeal has not been set.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.