Oregon Court of Appeals Rules Against Matt Wingard in Long-Running Defamation Case

Appellate judges say Multnomah County Circuit Court erred in preliminary ruling on anti-abortion group's 2016 campaign mailers targeting the former state representative.


The fallout from a bitter 2016 Oregon House primary continues.

Following his loss in that Republican primary for House District 26, which covers parts of Clackamas, Washington and Yamhill counties, former state Rep. Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville) sued Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council over campaign mailers that Wingard said made "false statements about [Wingard's] prior sexual relationship with a legislative aide."

Wingard was attempting a comeback in 2016 after leaving the Legislature. He  served two sessions in the 2009 and 2011 sessions, rising to the position of deputy minority leader.

He gave up his seat after WW reported allegations in 2012 from a former staffer who said that he'd given her alcohol before she turned 21 and pressured her into a sexual relationship. (Wingard said the relationship was consensual.)

Related: A Violation of Trust? A former legislative aide accuses a lawmaker of sexual misconduct.

As the defamation case moved forward in 2016, attorneys representing Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council moved to strike Wingard's lawsuit, filing what is known as an anti-SLAPP motion ("SLAPP" stands for "strategic lawsuits against public participation").

In effect, Right to Life and Oregon Family Council were arguing that Wingard was using the courts to quell legitimate political speech.

Multnomah County Judge Adrienne Nelson (whom Gov. Kate Brown appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in January) ruled against Right to Life's ant-SLAPP motion, which meant Wingard's lawsuit could move forward.

Right to Life  and the Oregon Family Council then appealed Nelson's ruling.

On Feb. 28, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed a reversed Nelson's decision. The court found that Wingard had failed to meet the necessary threshold of proving that, should the case move forward, he would be able to prove "actual malice," i.e. that Right to Life not only published material that was false but they knowingly did so.

“The problem is that plaintiff has failed to present sufficient evidence from which a reasonable fact-finder could find that defendants knew that those
assertions (including the description of the relationship as “pressured”) were false (or acted with reckless disregard as to their falsity) at the time that defendants published their statements,” reads the opinion, which was written by Court of Appeals Judge Chris Garrett.
(Garrett served in the Legislature as a Democratic member of the House in 2009 and 2011 alongside Wingard. A third member of the 2011 Oregon House, former state Rep. Shawn Lindsay (R-Hillsboro), served as trial counsel for Oregon Right to Life and Oregon Family Council.)
Tom Rask, Wingard’s attorney called the decision “disappointing.”

"Rep. Wingard has always denied any wrongdoing," Rask says. We believe the evidence we provided the trial court proves that defendants recklessly disregarded the truth. We're now considering our options."

The case now heads back to Multnomah County Circuit Court for reconsideration.

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