Barton, the head of the Texas-based political advocacy group WallBuilders and a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, is suing Democrats Rebecca Bell-Metereau of San Marcos and Judy Jennings of Austin. The lawsuit claims that an Internet video on behalf of their unsuccessful state board campaigns in 2010 falsely painted him as a sympathizer with white supremacists. The video noted that Barton is “known for speaking at white supremacist rallies.” The video also criticizes the state board’s appointment of Barton to a panel of so-called “experts” who advised the state board on the revision of social studies curriculum standards in 2009-10.
As the Weatherford Democrat newspaper reports, attorneys for Bell-Metereau and Jennings asked a state judge to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing to “a new Texas law intended to protect against lawsuits attempting to silence free speech, or ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation.’” Legislators hoped the law would weed out frivolous cases before defendants are forced to spend substantial sums of money on lawyers and other costs. Indeed, the fear of having to spend a lot of money to defend oneself from a frivolous lawsuit can have a chilling effect on free speech.
But a state judge in Parker County — where Barton’s WallBuilders is located and where he filed his lawsuit — refused to dismiss the suit. A state appeals court then ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the appeals. Now Bell-Metereau and Jennings are asking the Texas Supreme Court to decide whether Barton’s lawsuit can go forward.
We’ll point out again that Barton’s appearances at two events sponsored by white supremacists was first reported at least as far back as 1993. Barton, who says he rejects white supremacist ideology, claims not to have known at the time that the head of the organization sponsoring one of the events was “part of the Nazi movement.” In any case, numerous media outlets and writers have reported about Barton’s appearances at the events. One, Chris Rodda, has practically begged Barton to sue her.
TFN President Kathy Miller had this to say last fall after we first learned that Barton had filed his lawsuit:
“It’s puzzling that Mr. Barton has chosen now to sue two former candidates for simply discussing something that has been in the public record for nearly two decades – his past associations with groups reportedly tied to white supremacist and anti-Semitic movements. Instead of suing people for essentially repeating what has already been reported, perhaps he should acknowledge his poor judgment in associating with fringe groups. If this suit is simply an intimidation tactic designed to dissuade people from criticizing Mr. Barton’s past associations and chill free expression, then this could be the case of a revisionist historian trying to revise his own history, in our opinion.”
So now the Texas Supreme Court has the opportunity to decide whether a new state law intended to protect free speech from lawsuits that lack merit will actually be allowed to work — even when the complainant is a prominent former leader of the state Republican Party and a favorite in right-wing circles that control the party and high offices in the state.