Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant faces a defamation lawsuit from the Seattle Police Department officers who shot Che Taylor last year. Sawant filed for a motion to dismiss last week. The officers, Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding, claim she used the fatal shooting while naming the officers to further her own administrative agenda and political platform.
The lawsuit filing itself says the two “do not want one red cent of public money.” Their claim alleges Sawant called the officers murderers and stated their decision to shoot Taylor as a product of racial profiling before the two had their day in court.
The Council member continues to reference the incident as she did before, despite the jury’s decision to clear the officers. Miller and Spaulding requested retractions of their names by Sawant’s office but say they never got a response.
In this council briefing from January, Sawant uses the phrase “even though he was murdered by the police” about eight minutes into the session but does not specify officer names.
Defamation lawsuits require the statements be false. Due to the nature of Sawant’s statements, one of which are opinionated and the other a fact (the officers did kill someone which is by definition murder, though they weren’t charged), the court might not see defamation as relevant.
But let’s say the court does. What’s next?
Defamation additionally requires a reasonable person to have monetary, job-affecting, or family-related damage caused by the words spoken from another individual. The burden of proof here is lower for private citizens than public figures, like officials. One of the questions the court would need to settle in any decision: Due to the high publicity of the shooting, and the fact that the two individuals at hand are police, should Miller and Spaulding meet the higher or lower standard?
The officers’ lawsuit say their families suffered — likely to be labeled emotional distress, which isn’t necessarily provable in court unless there were resulting therapy sessions. However, the suit goes on to cite that Miller’s children had to transfer out of the Seattle School District, which could satisfy the proof of damage done to him (and his family who are private citizens) by Sawant’s statements.
The labels Sawant allegedly put upon the officers are ones Miller and Spaulding say impacted their careers. However, SPD communications officer Patrick Michaud verified they are currently back at work for SPD.
The lawsuit cites how Google searches populate this negative moment in their lives, but the court will likely see this as irrelevant to defamation. Rather, they will see it simply as a result of the internet age in a highly contentious and publicized police-involved shooting.
Sawant’s motion for dismissal likens the officers’ case to previous cases in which Sawant was accused of defamation but the plaintiffs cited no specific moment or record in which she did so. Her dismissal argues Sawant continued to speak out on the issue for advocacy and accountability. The dismissal transcribes relevant parts of her entire speech before the march referenced by Miller and Spaulding.
The council member previously faced a defamation lawsuit by landlord Carl Haglund, filed December 2016. He took issue with landlord-related legislation being nicknamed after him due to his documented reputation of paradoxically poor upkeep and rent increases. The ordinance, which is now in place, banned rent increases at building with housing code violations.
When it comes to the courts, Sawant costs the city money. Already, Seattle is over budget for litigation costs by $13.4 million, as reported by Crosscut’s David Kroman. The Haglund lawsuit alone could result in the city covering $185,000 for the council member. The cost of defending a dynamic and extremely progressive District 3 leader and legal expenses for city officials — especially this year in Seattle — are nothing new. Some are petitioning the city to remove legal funding for the case. While that outcome seems unlikely, the real question is what voters will say when she mounts her reelection campaign in 2019.