Two of the state's most prominent social-conservative groups, Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council, have struck back against former state Rep. Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville), who had sued the groups for defamation in 2016.
In his lawsuit, Wingard alleged the groups had mis-characterized his relationship with a former legislative aide.
He said that as he attempted to make a political comeback in 2016, after two sessions out of Salem, the groups maligned his character with campaign mailers that included "false statements about [Wingard's] prior sexual relationship with a legislative aide."
The defendants responded to Wingard's lawsuit with what's called an anti-SLAPP motion ("SLAPP" stands for "strategic lawsuits against public participation"), arguing that Wingard was using the courts to quell legitimate political speech.
Then-Multnomah County Court Judge Adrienne Nelson ruled, however, that Wingard met the necessary legal threshold to proceed with his case.
The defendants appealed that decision.
On Feb. 28, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Nelson's ruling—saying Wingard had not shown the groups knowingly published false information. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to Multnomah County, signaling that the anti-SLAPP motion was valid.
On March 21, Oregon Right to Life and Oregon Family Council's attorneys, the Bopp Law Firm of Terre Haute, Ind., and Harris Berne Christensen LLP of Lake Oswego, petitioned the court to award them $210,150 in legal fees. A law firm representing the groups' insurance companies is seeking an additional $24,384 for its fees.
“The Oregon legislature knew that for its anti-SLAPP law to have real teeth in protecting First Amendment speech, it must require parties filing meritless law suits to pay the legal fees of those they attack,” lead counsel James Bopp, Jr., lead said in a statement. “The Oregon Court of Appeals’ ruling in favor of Oregon Right to Life vindicates free speech and helps ensure that groups can criticize politicians and their government without fear of baseless and costly civil litigation.”
Wingard’s attorney, Tom Rask, says he’ll fight the request. “The attorney fee petition is shockingly high and unreasonable,” Rask says. “We will be contesting the claim.”