A judge has rejected claims by freshman Rep. Greg Duckworth, R-Horry, that an Horry County couple defamed him in online letters to the editor during his failed attempt in 2012 for a House seat.
In a summary judgment order in favor of Charles Collins and Bren Gibson, Circuit Judge Roger Young wrote, “There is no showing of clear and convincing evidence that any of the statements made in the Editorial Letters were made with the knowledge that they were false or in reckless disregard of their truth.”
“Indeed,” Young continued, “one could make a reasonable argument that most of the statements contained in the letters were demonstrably true, and those that weren’t fall within the category of political speech given special protection by the United States Constitution.”
The Nerve first reported about the defamation case in November after Duckworth was elected to his first two-year term as a House member. Then-Rep. Tracy Edge defeated Duckworth in the June 2012 Republican primary but lost to him in the GOP primary last June; Duckworth faced no formal opposition in the November general election.
Contacted Tuesday about Young’s March 11 ruling, Duckworth told The Nerve, “At this point, we have to respect the wishes of the court.”
Asked if he planned to appeal the ruling, Duckworth referred The Nerve to his attorney, Billy Monckton of Myrtle Beach, who did not respond to a phone message from The Nerve. Monckton is a law partner with state GOP Sen. Greg Hembree, a former solicitor for Horry and Georgetown counties.
In a written statement Tuesday to The Nerve, Collins said, “In my opinion, this lawsuit was simply a feeble attempt to silence my wife and I since he planned to run for House Seat 104 again.”
Collins and Gibson were represented by Myrtle Beach attorney Reese Boyd.
Duckworth filed separate suits in December 2012 against the couple, contending they defamed him in separate online letters to the editor published on myrtlebeachonline.com, the online edition of the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News. The couple asked readers to support Edge in the June 2012 GOP primary.
In his June 7, 2012, letter, Collins said Duckworth had been on the North Myrtle Beach City Council for 11 years and “used his position for personal gain,” claiming that Duckworth, who runs a landscape architectural and land planning firm, “obtained a significant portion” of funds spent on a sports complex approved by City Council.
Gibson in her June 9, 2012, online letter contended Duckworth “obtained many contracts to work on city contracts, the latest being the new sports complex in North Myrtle Beach.”
Duckworth in his defamation suits claimed the allegations in the letters were false, and the publication was “done with actual or implied malice.”
In their official responses, Collins and Gibson denied the statements in their letters were false, and contended that because Duckworth was a public official campaigning for public office when the letters were written, he is considered a “public official” and “public figure” under a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
In that case, the top court ruled that to prove a defamation or libel case, the public official bringing the suit must show that the allegations not only were false, but that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” meaning he either knew before publication that the allegations were false, or published them with “reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
Young, citing the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, said in his order that as a “public figure,” Duckworth had to show Collins and Gibson acted with “‘constitutional malice’ in writing the Editorial Letters, a heightened standard for defamation claims brought by public figures.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.