Vermont high court sides with newspaper in defamation suit

By Mike Faher, Brattleboro Reformer/VTDigger

MONTPELIER — Five days before the 2016 general election, The Northfield News published a letter to the editor about a state House candidate's criminal history, academic troubles and "disruptive behavior" at local businesses.

That candidate, Democrat Gordon Bock, lost the race, and subsequently sued the newspaper and the letter's author.

Now, more than a year after the election, the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that Bock's defamation lawsuit cannot move forward. That's partly because the letter's allegations had "reasonable factual support," but it's also because the justices consider the missive an exercise in free speech.

"The character, behavior and qualifications of a candidate for elective office constitute a 'public issue'" under the law, and are therefore considered "protected speech," three justices wrote in an entry order dated Dec. 1.

Bock, a prisoners' rights advocate with Vermont's chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, campaigned last year for the Washington-1 House district.

The Northfield resident made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his campaign and said that he "speaks openly of past mistakes that led to his being incarcerated." He said his faith and a state domestic abuse counseling program were key components of his rehabilitation.

On Nov. 3, 2016, The Northfield News ran a letter that brought up Bock's criminal past, which included domestic assault and a related shooting. On the same page was a letter from Bock acknowledging those incidents.

"I own my mistakes. I have learned from them and grown from them," he wrote. "My biggest regret, and one that I cannot undo or reverse, is that I hurt people before I made positive changes in my life. But making positive changes and choices is what I shall continue to do."

Beneath Bock's letter was another letter written by William S. Smith of Northfield. Smith mentioned Bock's criminal record but went further: He said the candidate had been "kicked out" of Vermont Law School for cheating and also had been "removed from local businesses for disruptive behavior" earlier in 2016.

"I know people in town who are afraid of him," Smith wrote. "In my opinion, he is not someone who should be elected to represent Northfield."

Less than a week later, Bock came in last in a race among four candidates for two legislative seats. He finished well behind two incumbents who retained those seats - Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, and Rep. Patti Lewis, R-Berlin - and also was edged out by Progressive Democrat Jeremy Hansen.

Bock then sued the newspaper and Smith, taking issue with the writer's statements about Vermont Law School and being removed from local businesses.

Both defendants sought to have the suit thrown out under Vermont's "anti-SLAPP" law. The abbreviation stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," and it allows defendants in a free speech case to file a special motion to strike a lawsuit.

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