Pipkin v. Acumen
Pipkin v. Acumen, 2020 UT App 111 (Orme, J.)
Mr. Acumen, a State Central Committee (SCC) member of the Utah Republican Party (URP) (Committee Member), sent emails and made social media posts calling those who voted for the passage of a certain Bylaw “criminal.” He further encouraged others to email the voters to express their disapproval. Appellants filed a complaint accusing the Committee Member of defamation and electronic communications harassment, among other things. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Committee Member. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed, holding:
- The district court correctly granted summary judgment on the defamation claim. Appellants did not contest any of the district court’s findings. The Committee Member’s emails and social media post calling appellants’ actions criminal were unquestionably political speech, which “enjoys the broadest protection under the First Amendment.” And he published the challenged statements within the larger context of a hotly debated public issue—the signature path to the primary ballot. No reasonable reader would understand the emails to suggest that the mere vote in favor, irrespective of whether the Bylaw ultimately passed, would be illegal conduct. Given the context of the statements and the readers’ awareness of the public debate, the challenged statements were not susceptible to defamatory interpretation.
- The district court correctly granted summary judgment on the electronic communications harassment claim. The content of the emails and post dealt directly with the “business” of the SCC and the URP and therefore falls squarely within the statutory “legitimate business purpose” exemption.
- The district court also correctly granted summary judgment on the false light claim. The Committee Member at most accused the SCC of acting illegally in adopting the Bylaw, and because local media outlets reporting on the Bylaw had already suggested that it was “possibly illegal,” Plaintiffs cannot establish that he, a layperson, “knew or recklessly disregarded the falsity of the publicized matter.”
- The district court also correctly granted summary judgment on the IIED claim. Such conduct does not, in this robust political context, “evoke outrage or revulsion” and therefore cannot “reasonably be regarded as so extreme and outrageous as to permit recovery.”