Lawyers familiar with First Amendment issues and campaign laws said Randy Parraz, one of the organizers of the recall drive targeting Senate President Russell Pearce, would have a tough time proving he was defamed by signs that say he supported the boycott against Arizona and he pines for open borders.
That’s mainly because people who are considered public figures or “limited-purpose” public figures — meaning those who have voluntarily injected themselves or have been drawn into public controversy — face a high bar to prove they have been defamed.
“Assuming Mr. Parraz is a public figure for defamation purposes, he would be required to show by clear and convincing evidence that the statements were made with actual malice. In other words, that they were made with conscious disregard for the truth,” said attorney David Bodney, an authority on media and constitutional law.
Parraz’s lawyer sent a letter to Pearce and Matt Tolman, the chairman of Citizens Opposing the Pearce Recall, claiming the signs defamed his client and demanded that they be taken down.
The lawyer, Chad Snow, who is also chairman of the pro-recall group, Citizens for a Better Arizona, said Pearce and Tolman should stop “making false and scurrilous statements” about Parraz.
Snow said Parraz never supported open borders, opposed the “rule of law,” or supported a boycott against Arizona.
First Amendment and media attorney Dan Barr said some of the statements against Parraz are vague, such as whether he supports the rule of law.
“Whether people ‘oppose the rule of law,’ ‘support open borders,’ or are ‘opposed to East Valley values’ strikes me as amorphous rhetoric that cannot be proven true or false,” he said.
But whether someone is supported by labor unions that boycotted Arizona or supports gay marriage — another claim on the signs — can be proven true or false, Barr said.
Whether any of them is defamatory is a separate question, he said.
Nick Dranias, a lawyer with the Goldwater Institute who specializes in First Amendment issues, also said it’s not illegal to put up a sign against someone who is not a candidate in an election — so long as it’s not defamatory and it’s not illegally placed.
“It’s not nice, but sometimes you have the freedom to do ‘not nice’ things under the First Amendment,” he said.
Ultimately, Tolman’s group agreed to remove the signs after Mesa code-enforcement officials determined them to violate a city ordinance that restricts political signs from going up more than 60 days before an election. Some of them were also determined to be illegally placed in public rights of way.
But Tolman said he expects the group will re-post the signs on Sept. 9, which would be 60 days before the scheduled Nov. 8 recall.
The verbal tussle between the pro- and anti-recall groups is another sign that the election is heating up.
Citizens for a Better Arizona had submitted more than enough signatures to make Pearce the first sitting legislator to face a recall election.
Supporters of the recall say Pearce may appeal to the state’s right-wing, but he’s espousing values that are too extreme for the state and his reign as Senate president exposed his limited agenda.
Pearce’s allies, in turn, challenged the recall petition in court. They said the recall drive subverted the electoral process because Pearce hasn’t done anything illegal or unethical to justify his removal from office.
Mesa Republican Jerry Lewis has submitted his signatures to be on ballot.
Two other challengers — Republican Olivia Cortes and Libertarian Michael Kielsky — also have announced their intentions to run.
Lewis is considered to be the frontrunner among the challengers because of his deep ties to District 18, support by influential members of the community and his work as a high-ranking member of the Mormon Church.