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Utah court hearing is blow to
coal mine bosses libel suit
Judge orders plaintiffs to rewrite amorphous complaint;
Co-Op miners and UMWA gain from judges decision
May 23 picket in support of fight for UMWA representation at the Co-Op mine in Huntington, Utah. From left: UMWA retired miners Bob Fivecoat and Ernesto Lopez.
BY PAUL MAILHOT
SALT LAKE CITYFollowing two hours of presentations and questioning in federal district court here June 14, Judge Dee Benson ordered attorneys for C.W. Mining and the company-allied International Association of United Workers Union (IAUWU) to rewrite within 30 days their amorphous complaint against the Militant and this citys major dailiesthe Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret Morning News. The lawsuit, the judge ruled, has so far failed to present a clear claim of defamation, a key charge against the newspapers and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and other unions backing the Co-Op miners organizing struggle.
The judge told attorneys for the three newspapers they could submit motions for summary judgment at the next hearing. Such a motion, if granted by the court after the plaintiffs have rewritten their case, would mean C.W. Minings attorneys have presented no facts that sustain a claim of libel and therefore the newspapers would be entitled to a ruling in their favor without a trial.
Following the June 14 hearing, attorneys for the UMWA, 16 Co-Op miners, and other union defendants who are also being sued for unfair labor practices, immediately asked the court to postpone their August 1 hearing. The court rapidly granted the request. If the newspapers prevail in the next round a large part of the lawsuit against the labor defendants, which includes many defamation allegations, would also likely fall.
C.W. Mining and the IAUWU filed their lawsuit in September 2004. This case grew out of a now 21-month-long labor battle for union representation, safe working conditions, and better pay at the Co-Op mine near Huntington, Utah. All the defendantsnearly 100have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit.
At the June 14 hearing, attorneys Michael OBrien for the Salt Lake Tribune, Jeffrey Hunt for the Deseret Morning News, and Randy Dryer for the Militant sat together on one side of the courtroom. On the other side were attorneys for C.W. Mining and the IAUWUCarl Kingston and Mark Hansen, respectively. Hansen presented all the arguments for the companys side.
Attorney Arthur Sandack, who is local counsel for the UMWA and the 16 Co-Op miners, was present in the courtroom. Sandack also represents the Utah AFL-CIO in the case. Bill Estrada, a Co-Op miner who is a defendant in the lawsuit, also attended.
Hundreds of claimed defamations
Michael OBrien opened for the defendants by explaining the protections newspapers are afforded when reporting on labor disputes. The defendants have pointed out that the so-called defamations are quotes from workers expressing their views on this fight and opinion columns or editorials backing the workers struggle. The judge then called on the plaintiffs attorneys to respond.
All this argument about labor disputes, uninhibited debate, thats true, Hansen said, but malicious libel enjoys no protection.
Did you take time to count how many specific things were said that you allege to be defamatory? Judge Benson then asked. Would you say hundreds? Thousands?
Hundreds, together, Hansen replied. Probably not if its just the Deseret News or Salt Lake Tribune standing alone. Probably hundreds from the Militant.
When the judge said, give me one example of a specific quote thats defamatory, Hansen stumbled.
Referring to a Salt Lake Tribune article cited in the lawsuit, which reads, Union leaders said labor tensions between the operators of CWM and their work force resulted in a lockout of 75 workers…. the judge asked, Just tell me what is defamatory about that?
Its a question of fact, replied Hansen.
Thats not what Im asking you, Benson calmly stated. Pretend Im a juror. Tell me why its defamatory.
Hansen was unable to clarify for the judge a single act of libel committed by the newspapers. The IAUWU lawyer eventually acknowledged the judge was correct to say that when a quote is attributed to Co-Op miners or someone supporting them, any defamation charge would have to be against the individual and not against the newspapers.
Hansen said he considered former miners who were part of the UMWA organizing effort to be the main source of defamations against the company. There are three or four who, it is clear to us, were ringleaders to get everyone to walk out, Hansen said.
No defamatory meaning
C.W. Mining and the IAUWU present no facts to support their conclusions, said Jeffrey Hunt in arguing the newspapers case. You dont have a defamation claim every time something published is false, or that you dont agree with, or that is wrong-headed.
Randy Dryer, representing the Militant newspaper and Socialist Workers Party, emphasized the Militant and the other papers are protected by the First Amendment, and the legal arguments presented by attorneys for the Tribune and the Morning News apply with equal force to the Militant. The SWP is also cited for defamation on the false claim by the mine bosses that the party owns and controls the Militant.
At the same time, a disproportionate burden falls upon a small newspaper like the Militant in a case like this, Dryer explained. The Militant has a volunteer staff and no commercial advertisement. It is financed by subscriptions, and contributions from its supporters, Dryer said.
The reasons and motives in filing this suit are improper, Dryer emphasized. It is meant to chill critical commentary and discussion…and not brought in good faith.
Dryer said the court should consider awarding legal fees for having to respond to a complaint drafted in a knowingly confused and vague way.
Hansen replied that the case was brought in good faith, and further complained to the judge that writers for the Militant did not respond to first-class letters from the coal company lawyers to accept being served as defendants in the case.
There is nothing in the rules that says would-be defendants must cooperate in being served, Benson replied.
Newspaper arguments remain valid
In ordering the coal companys attorneys to redraft their complaint the judge made it clear he was not ruling against any of the arguments for dismissing the case. He also stated he was not opening the case up to discovery. Under discovery, the plaintiffs would have legal rights to begin an intrusive process against the defendantswhich could drag on for years and financially drain those involveddesigned to gather evidence for their claims.
After admonishing the coal companys attorneys for their big scattergun approach, the judge said the plaintiffs had placed a burden on the defendants whose lives are disrupted by a lawsuit like this.
Dismissing this whole thing was tempting, the judge said.
Hansen told the court he would have to rewrite the entire complaint, not just the portions directed against the newspapers. He asked whether the judge planned to exercise jurisdiction over the federal issues in the caseunfair labor practicesas well as hear the subsidiary state law defamation issues. UMWA attorneys have argued the unfair labor practices charges are already in front of the NLRB and dont rightly belong in this court.
Benson responded that he would be tempted to rule in favor of the union defendants on the jurisdiction matter, but was holding off on a decision. Were not there yet, Benson said, adding that if he ends up investing a lot of time in the case he may exercise jurisdiction and decide those questions.
Defense campaign expands
This is the most important labor defense case in the United States today, said Norton Sandler, one of the organizers of the Militant Fighting Fund, following the hearing. We are urging everyone who supports labor rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press to get behind the defendants in this case, and we need to raise substantial funds immediately to cover legal expenses.
A special appeal to raise $60,000 for the Militant Fighting Fund by August 15 has been launched. Initial pledges and contributions toward this goal made after an appeal at the conclusion on June 11 of the Socialist Workers Party convention in Oberlin, Ohio, totaled $40,800, with supporters across the United States and in several other countries organizing to boost that amount substantially above the goal.
Attorneys for the Militant and the SWP will rapidly write a new answer to the companys refiled legal brief and push to have a rapid hearing, Sandler said. All of this work is going to take resources, which makes going over the top on the $60,000 Militant Fighting Fund very important.
Last week, several endorsements for the fight came in from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, including from Bruce Nestor, immediate past-president of the National Lawyers Guild; and Gary Prevost, professor of political science at St. Johns University.
Two New York Transport Workers Union Local 100 membersAngel Giboyeaux and Victor Oglesbywho were recently part of a successful 48-day strike for better wages and retirement benefits, also signed on. They join a growing number of union officers and other union members who are lending their names and their financial support to the Militant Fighting Fund.
Endorsement cards, letters of support, and financial contributions can be sent to: Militant Fighting Fund, P.O. Box 520994, Salt Lake City, UT 84152-0994. Fax cards to (801) 924-5910.
As Utah miners press union fight, Co-Op mine output drops
Back labor defense campaign