No immediate decision was reached Friday in a lawsuit alleging that a political action committee defamed a Nebraska lawmaker by accusing her of grooming her transgender son.
The first hearing in the case pitting the Nebraska Freedom Coalition against State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha took place Friday, with Douglas County District Judge Todd Engleman considering the coalition’s motion to dismiss the suit. Engleman took both sides’ arguments under advisement but did not issue a ruling.
The initial complaint, filed by the Nebraska Legal Action Fund on behalf of Hunt, alleges that the coalition — including members Patrick Peterson, Robert Anthony and Malia Shirley — made “intentional, reckless, and knowingly false statements” about Hunt, claiming she sexually abused and groomed her 13-year-old son.
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The coalition made such claims on Twitter after Hunt shared that her son was transgender during a contentious debate over a bill that will restrict access to gender-affirming care for individuals under 19, Legislative Bill 574. Since then, the coalition has repeatedly called Hunt a “groomer” and posted photos of her child.
Following the initial post, the Nebraska Legal Action Fund requested the coalition retract its statements, but the coalition doubled down in a post that was still pinned on its Twitter page as of Friday.
The coalition later filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, in which they stated their intent to countersue if their motion is unsuccessful. Their attorney, Robert Sullivan, said Hunt’s case was “fatally flawed.”
Sullivan said that while the coalition members don’t deny making posts calling Hunt a groomer, that doesn’t equate to accusing her of a crime. He argued the coalition’s posts would reasonably be seen as an expression of opinion, not fact.
Hunt’s lawyer, former State Sen. Adam Morfeld, said defamation can be an accusation of something that is generally considered a crime, even if no specific crime is alleged. Morfeld said grooming allegations are generally considered criminal.
Morfeld noted that the coalition even posted a definition of the word grooming on Twitter and called it an act of abuse in referring to LB 574 opponents. By doing so, Morfeld said, the coalition implied Hunt was unfit to serve her current office, since most crimes categorized under grooming are felonies in Nebraska.
Morfeld added that because of the coalition’s posts, Hunt and her family have been subjected to harassment and threats of violence, many of which accused her of being a child abuser and a pedophile.
“Violence against children, especially sexual violence, is considered universally abhorrent in our society,” Morfeld argued. “To accuse (Hunt) of such behavior is to expose her to disgust, disdain, humiliation, and ostracization.”
Sullivan said the coalition was responding to Hunt’s arguments against LB 574 and was effectively expressing an opinion on a political issue, which is not considered defamation. He pointed to past cases in which the courts have affirmed that public debates ought to be unrestrained and sometimes sharp against public officials.
“As unpleasant and unfortunate as it is, political discussions often devolve into little more than childish tantrums,” Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan also described Hunt’s complaint as “a thinly-disguised abuse of the litigation process for purposes of silencing citizen discussions on issues affecting the public well-being.”
But Morfeld said the coalition was the one trying to silence other views by intimidating Hunt and other LGBTQ+ advocates through accusations of grooming.
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