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Rep. Boebert’s threats to sue opposition group’s donors likely improper, judge says

Court sides with Colorado congresswoman on dismissal of defamation claim
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., leaves the chamber at the Capitol in Washington on June 21, 2023. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press file)

A lawsuit against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Windsor can move forward on some of its claims, a federal magistrate judge in Colorado recommended Sunday.

The lawsuit comes from political activist David Wheeler of North Carolina and the super PAC American Muckrakers, of which he is president. Filed a year ago in U.S. District Court of Colorado, it alleges that Boebert made “maliciously false statements” about Wheeler and American Muckrakers on multiple occasions in 2022, when Boebert was running for reelection and Wheeler, citing sources close to Boebert, published unflattering information about her.

Boebert sought to have the case dismissed under Colorado’s anti-SLAPP law, which protects Coloradans who exercise free speech rights from meritless lawsuits.

In a recommendation that dealt with Boebert’s motion to dismiss the case, as well as a motion from Wheeler to amend his original complaint, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathryn A. Starnella said that Boebert potentially could be found liable for threatening to sue American Muckrakers donors. But Starnella found that Wheeler’s claim that Boebert defamed him was not likely to succeed.

As Wheeler published negative material about Boebert in 2022, Boebert appeared in various media outlets to rebut his allegations. In a statement to Fox News in June of that year, for example, Boebert said, “Muckrakers’ sloppy, reckless, and wildly irresponsible actions have created substantial legal liability for Muckrakers, David Wheeler in his personal capacity, and each donor to the organization who chose to fund the effort knowing it would result in defamation,” with Boebert’s lawyer adding, “This will be a costly miscalculation for Muckrakers, Wheeler, and Muckrakers’ donors.”

Boebert never followed through by filing a lawsuit against Wheeler or donors, but Wheeler told the court that his organization saw a 92% drop in donations due to Boebert’s remarks.

“Defendant’s threats to sue Plaintiffs’ sponsors and donors are unprotected because they were neither made in good faith nor in serious contemplation of litigation,” Starnella wrote. “While Defendant has an interest in protecting her reputation, even through litigation, Plaintiffs’ donors and sponsors have a weightier interest in exercising their First Amendment right to engage in political speech (in the form of financial donations to political action committees) without fear of retaliation.”

Starnella added, “The Court finds no social value in allowing elected officials to silence speech they dislike by threatening gadfly journalists’ donors, who have not themselves engaged in any unlawful or tortious activity.”

She said that Wheeler is “reasonably likely to prevail” in court on his claim that Boebert improperly interfered with American Muckrakers’ ability to work with previous and future donors and supporters.

Starnella also said that other portions of Wheeler’s original complaint, including defamation allegations, should not move forward. She wrote that both parties have two weeks to ask a U.S. district judge assigned to the case to reconsider her recommendation. Federal magistrate judges are appointed by district judges to oversee certain judicial proceedings.

Reached by email a spokesperson for Boebert did not immediately comment.

Wheeler declined to comment.

Boebert represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers the western part of the state, but this year she moved to Windsor to run in the 4th District, which covers the eastern part of the state.

She is competing in the June 25 Republican primary election against five other candidates.

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.cororadonewsline.com.