BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a former Democratic state lawmaker’s claim that GOP ads targeting him before the 2010 election were false and defamatory.
In the lawsuit, James Schatz, a former state representative from Blue Hill, claimed the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Virginia-based political action committee, libeled him in print and television advertisements that were mailed to voters and run on television stations in eastern Maine in the days before the November vote.
The ads targeting Schatz claimed that, as a Blue Hill selectman, he had “voted to cancel a $10,000 Fourth of July fireworks display, and that … [he] and other selectmen had improperly applied taxpayers’ fireworks funds to a political contribution or political campaign.”
Although neither claim was true, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby ruled that the statements made in the ads against Schatz “were not made with actual knowledge of their falsity or with a reckless disregard for their truth.” As a public figure, the judge explained, Schatz is held to a higher standard under libel law.
“That is the price that we pay for unfettered debate on public issues as protected by the First Amendment,” the judge concluded in his ruling.
Schatz on Thursday said he was disappointed with the decision and was conferring with his attorneys about the possibility of an appeal.
“The judge’s ruling is almost as demeaning as the whole experience,” Schatz said. “I think it shows how low the bar has come, and how behavior that not too many years ago would not be thought of as decent now goes with the territory.”
A spokesperson for the RSLC could not be reached Thursday evening.
The RSLC spent almost $400,000 in Maine, including about $70,000 on the Senate District 28 race in which Schatz ran against Republican Brian Langley and Maine Green Independent Party candidate Lynne Williams. Langley won the election.
Although the judge’s ruling favored the RSLC, the group did not escape its foray into Maine politics unscathed. In February, the Maine Ethics Commission fined the group $26,000 for failing to file timely and accurate reports about the expenditures.