Update: Councilmember Harrell backs Kshama Sawant
Council President Bruce Harrell sent an email to Sawant, notifying her that the council will cover the legal costs she faces in a defamation lawsuit, Crosscut reports. It is not yet known if the council will also cover a second case Sawant faces, brought forth by two police officers.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s fiery, passionate rhetoric has earned her two defamation lawsuits and, as suspected, the City of Seattle may spend about $300,000 to defend her.
The Seattle Times outlines a pair of lawsuits she faces. One from landlord Carl Haglund. She called him a “notorious slumlord” and he’s suing for defamation. Another lawsuit is by a pair of officers. They claim Sawant falsely accused them of committing a “brutal murder” against Che Taylor (an inquest jury – and the facts of the case – disagree with Sawant).
Sawant made these comments while serving as a council member so her attorney is asking the city to defend her. The Seattle Times’ Eric Lacitis reports that “an initial estimate from an outside counsel of $185,000 for litigation costs in just one of the lawsuits.”
The city should defend her.
I know that opinion may earn the ire of Sawant’s critics, but she absolutely made these comments in her capacity as a councilmember. Indeed, her position informed the statements she made.
That’s not to say either comments were correct. In fact, I find her comments about the two officers, in particular, to be disgusting. But it’s important the city defend her.
Councilmembers must feel comfortable speaking their minds in the capacity of a public servant without fear that they’ll be sued by activist opponents in the communities they serve. We want to empower the council — and any of our representatives — to speak out on our behalf. If we don’t indemnify them for their speech, we run the risk of unhinged activists, under the threat of a personal lawsuit, bullying the councilmember into silence. That means they won’t be able to speak out for what the community wants. We should err on the side of more speech, not less.
But you don’t like Sawant’s rhetoric? Fair enough. There’s an easy way to stop that. The leverage we have in making comments that are false and defamatory is the lawsuit itself. If she speaks out in a way that is illegal — and I’m pretty sure both her statements, even if false, qualify as protected speech — she will cost the city and will have to suffer the consequences when she runs for re-election (or she can face a recall campaign). And maybe you’ll think twice about who you elect to public office. Stop pretending you don’t expect this kind of commentary from Sawant. She was re-elected after many similar speeches using this kind of rhetoric.
At the end of the day, I’d rather provide an environment where a public servant is given the freedom to speak out with facts on their side, rather than silence speech out of fear they’ll speak lies. The city should defend her in this case because, in essence, it’s defending an ideal we should all support: free speech.