Slander lawsuit to challenge free speech Ex-candidate's case might put restrictions on political rhetoric

February 13, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate is suing her former rival for defamation in a case that may define how far a politician can go in attacking an opponent.

Ruthann Aron will ask an Anne Arundel Circuit Court jury today to find that she was slandered by her opponent, William E. Brock during their race for Senate in the 1994 Repuboican primary

Legal scholars say the case raises a free speech issue frequently asked during an election year, but seldom taken up in court: When does political rhetoric cross the line?

Ms. Aron alleges in her suit that Mr. Brock defamed her in a Sept. 7, 1994, Rockville news conference, when he told reporters that she had "been convicted by a jury of fraud more than once" and that "she's had to pay enormous -- hundreds of thousands of dollars, in fines."

Ms. Aron had been sued twice, with one suit including an allegation of civil fraud in real estate dealings. One of those suits was dismissed and the other was settled out of court for $300,000.

Civil verdicts are not considered convictions and out-of-court settlements are not fines.

Ms. Aron said that in the final days before the Sept. 13 primary, Mr. Brock also aired a series of radio and television advertisements that emphasized those points.

The suit alleges that Mr. Brock, a former secretary of labor and U.S. senator from Tennessee, gained in the polls and won the GOP nomination because of the ads.

Ms. Aron is seeking an unspecified sum in damages.

Mr. Brock's lawyers contend the suit is an act of political vengeance and deny that their client ever intended to mislead the electorate.

"I think she's an angry lady who lost the election and now she's out for her pound of flesh," said Ben Cotten, Mr. Brock's lawyer.

Mr. Brock's lawyers say Ms. Aron fails to meet the legal standards for defamation against public figures.

"No statements were made showing a reckless disregard for the truth," Mr. Cotten said.

The case, scheduled to take up to two weeks, will be heard by Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., who decided the unsuccessful election fraud suit filed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Peter Quint, who teachers constitutional law at the University of Maryland law school, said that to win, Ms. Aron must establish that Mr. Brock's statements were made with actual malice, which means that he knew they were false or had a reckless disregard for whether they were true or false.

Michael Meyerson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said Ms. Aron's lawyers are going to have to convince a jury that people listening to the ads were swayed by them -- a difficult task given the skepticism of most people toward political advertising.

"It might possibly have some chilling effect on free speech, but I'm sure some people wouldn't mind a little chilling on the nasty attacks that go on in a political campaigns," Mr. Meyerson said.

Ms. Aron, a Potomac developer and lawyer who has hired a blue-chip Washington public relations firm to handle the press during the litigation, said yesterday the suit is intended to restore her reputation and curb political attack ads.

"I think that what happened to me is an example of why more good people don't run for public office," she said. "Disclosing an opponent's record is a fair tactic, but lying about an opponent, is that fair?"

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