A view of the Flatirons in Boulder. (Pixabay)
A group of Boulder political organizers is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit from a candidate for city council under a state law meant to curb legal threats that discourage free speech and participation in the government process.
Steven Rosenblum in September sued a number of politically active Boulderites for sharing a blog that contained leaked Slack messages from the group Safer Boulder, of which Rosenblum is a member and which subsequently endorsed him and three other candidates for Boulder City Council. The Safer Leaks blog debuted September 2020, well before Rosenblum’s candidacy, and documented members’ demeaning language about people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder, including some posts advocating violence against them.
The campaign committee Boulder Progressives blogged and emailed members about the leaks in August, one week after Rosenblum announced his candidacy. Boulder Progressives is backing four candidates who are competing with Rosenblum and five others for five open seats on Boulder City Council.
Rosenblum’s initial complaint, which was shared with local media and posted to Facebook and NextDoor more than a week before it was filed, named several individuals who were later removed from the lawsuit, either because they were wrongly named or had no current connections to Boulder Progressives.
Three current defendants — Mark Van Akkeren, Ryan Welsh and Katie Farnan — are on the steering committee for Boulder Progressives. Another, SarahDawn Haynes, is in a leadership role with the Indian Peaks chapter of the Sierra Club, an organization that endorsed some of Rosenblum’s competitors for City Council.
“The outcomes of local elections impact my and my neighbors’ lives most directly, which is why I believe that public participation is so important,” Farnan wrote in response to a request for comment. “And public speech requires defending when it comes to issues that are in the public interest.”
Welsh, Van Akkeren and Haynes declined to comment for this article, choosing to defer to the motion language.
Attorney Tom Kelley on Friday filed a motion to dismiss Rosenblum’s complaint on behalf of these four individuals, referred to as the BPO defendants. Kelley argues that Rosenblum’s claims of defamation are meritless because the defendants used Rosenblum’s own words in their posts and the defendant’s comments represented opinions, not statements of fact.
Rosenblum admitted to having authored the Slack messages at a July candidate forum, according to the motion to dismiss, and to multiple media outlets. Nor did he deny having written the leaked messages in his own lawsuit.
”Calling out a candidate’s hypocrisies during an election, using his own statements, is not defamation,” the motion reads. “For anyone with a passing knowledge of the law, it is crystal clear that this litigation’s true objective is not to obtain monetary compensation for any actual injury to Rosenblum’s reputation but instead to harass and silence persons who challenge his fitness for office based on his own statements and those of his political allies.”
“This is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”), pure and simple.”
SLAPP was a term coined in the 1980s by University of Denver professors George Pring and Penelope Canan to describe lawsuits meant to threaten free speech or participation in government processes in connection with an issue of public concern. Thirty-one states have passed anti-SLAPP laws to allow defendants to quickly dismiss SLAPP suits.
Colorado’s anti-SLAPP statute was adopted in 2019, and a handful of cases have used it. First Amendment lawyer Steven Zansberg has successfully argued two.
The Rosenblum case, with which he had a familiarity, is “fairly obviously a SLAPP case,” Zansberg said, due to the fact that the complaint was widely publicized before being filed in court, many more people were initially named as defendants than actually sued — including those with connections to his political opponents but not Boulder Progressives — and that nearly a month has lapsed with no defendants being served.
“You do wonder how serious they are about those claims,” Zansberg said. “It does seem like a political stunt.”
Rosenblum also alleged that Eric Budd, an organizer with Bedrooms Are For People, set up fake Twitter accounts and websites in Rosenblum’s name that redirect to the Safer Leaks blog. Rosenblum and several political groups that are backing him are opposed to the Bedrooms’ ballot measure, which would loosen Boulder’s rules concerning unrelated renters.
Those accusations were not addressed in the motion to dismiss, which discussed only the allegations against the BPO defendants. Budd declined to comment.
The BPO defendants are asking for the case to be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it could not be refiled. A Nov. 12 hearing has been requested — 10 days after the Nov. 2 municipal election.
Attorney Stan Garnett, who is representing Rosenblum, believes his client’s complaint would withstand the anti-SLAPP motion.
“We drafted the complaint carefully so it could withstand this claim or any other claims from defendants,” Garnett said.
Rosenblum did not respond to a request for comment.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:23 p.m., Oct. 16, 2021, to clarify the meaning of a dismissal with prejudice and correct the number of city council candidates.
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