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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 3:59 pm | Fair 63º


Judge Rules Against Defamation Claims of Former Congressional Candidate Chris Mitchum

The Republican claims incumbent Lois Capps' campaign ads deliberately misled voters about his positions, costing him the election last fall

Chris Mitchum is seen on election night in November after his unsuccessful run for Congress against Rep. Lois Capps. He sued Capps for defamation of character in her campaign ads, but a judge has ruled against him.
Chris Mitchum is seen on election night in November after his unsuccessful run for Congress against Rep. Lois Capps. He sued Capps for defamation of character in her campaign ads, but a judge has ruled against him. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge has ruled against a former congressional candidate who sued Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, for defamation.

Former congressional candidate Chris Mitchum announced in February he was suing Capps for defamation, alleging that her campaign ran ads taking his comments out of context, a move he said ultimately cost him the election.

Mitchum, who challenged Capps last fall for the 24th Congressional District seat, lost the race during a close election against the 16-year incumbent.

Judge Donna Geck upheld her ruling Friday, which stated that Mitchum had not demonstrated actual malice.

Capps spokesman Chris Meagher told Noozhawk on Tuesday that the lawsuit had been baseless.

"As the congresswoman has maintained from the beginning, there was no validity to this frivolous lawsuit," he said. "She was pleased to see that the law was applied as it should be."

Josh Lynn, Mitchum's attorney, said that while he respected the court's position, he felt the time was right to have the discussion about truth in political advertising.

"Our goal remains to change the dialogue from this visceral attack between the candidates to something that resembles the truth. Our opinion of the case law is that the county, the state and the country are ready for that," he said.  

Lynn said he suspects appeal will be the next step, but "we will examine our options carefully."

Mitchum's lawsuit had named Capps, Friends of Lois Capps as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as defendants, and maintained that two ads run during the campaign "deliberately edited Mitchum’s filmed and audio comments so as to completely alter and falsify what candidate Chris Mitchum actually said."

Central to the lawsuit was a 2012 interview Mitchum had done with Cal Poly TV, in which he stated, "I do not intend to go to Washington to represent the 24th District to bring back baseball fields, that's not why I am going. I am going to fight for my country and I happen to be from the 24th District."

The lawsuit maintains that Mitchum had a narrow lead when the Capps campaign began running ads with a clipped version of Mitchum's statement, in which he only said, "I do not intend to go to Washington to represent the 24th District," and then the ad maintains that Mitchum will represent Tea Party advocates.

"The editing changed the meaning of the statement to make voters believe that, by his own words, Mitchum had no intention of doing his job if elected, and essentially stated he would use the elected office for his own purposes, not those of his district," the lawsuit states.

Geck stated in her ruling, however, that campaign ads fell under free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. Geck also said the statements in the ad were not demonstrably false.

"Clearly the Capps campaign does not think a Tea Party agenda serves the interests of the 24th District. But the ad is not necessarily unfavorable, depending on one’s view of the conservative agenda represented in the ad," she wrote. "The only alleged alteration of Mitchum’s statement was the presentation of an incomplete sentence he uttered. It did not materially change the meaning."

The ads do not suggest, as Mitchum argues, that he was not going to do his job, Geck wrote.

"There are many members of Congress pursuing his goals while doing their job," she wrote. "The ads suggest that the agenda he would pursue in Washington is not in the interests of the 24th District. Whether that agenda is or is not in line with the voters of the district is up to them to decide."

She ultimately wrote that Mitchum had not sufficiently shown that the ad made a materially false statement.

"Since the court does not find the ad false, the court cannot find defendants made false statements with actual malice," she said. "Mitchum’s inability to demonstrate actual malice by clear and convincing evidence is another reason he cannot demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the defamation claim.

Geck said in her ruling that the court doesn't offer an opinion on whether either party's ads in the campaign were admirable or fair.

"Sadly, that is not the standard for a modern campaign in which even good people are not always at their best," she wrote.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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