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Nebraska lawmaker sues conservative PAC for defamation, says online attacks led to threats

Jun 29, 2023, 12:38 PM | Updated: 1:10 pm

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker is suing a conservative political action committee for defamation, saying the group targeted her with online attacks that led to violent threats against her and her transgender child.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt sued the Nebraska Freedom Coalition and three of its officers — Patrick Peterson, Robert Anthony and Malia Shirley — this week, saying they defamed her when they repeatedly called her a child “groomer” in social media posts and falsely accused her of sexually abusing her child.

The group began making those accusations in March, shortly after Hunt made an impassioned plea with her fellow lawmakers on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature to reject a bill that would have banned gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 19. She shared publicly for the first time in that speech that her teenage child is transgender and called the bill an affront to her and other parents caring for transgender teens.

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After the Nebraska Freedom Coalition began its online attacks of Hunt, the lawsuit says, others began harassing Hunt, and “she was called a groomer on Twitter no fewer than 231 times.”

She also received dozens of phone calls and emails accusing her of being a groomer or pedophile and an unfit mother. Several emails threatened her with physical harm; one called for her to be mutilated. A fake Twitter account purporting to be that of her child published her home address and called on people to “rescue” the 13-year-old from Hunt’s home. One post called for Hunt to be publicly executed.

“I am taking a stand against those who wish to defame, intimidate and harass parents, educators, healthcare professionals, and advocates who stand up for our children and Nebraskans in the fight for equality across the state,” Hunt said in a written statement following announcement of the lawsuit. “No longer will we stand by while vile and defamatory statements are made to marginalize Nebraskans.”

To highlight the gravity of those threats, the lawsuit notes that a 2020 shooting death by a man who was “hunting” sex offenders, according to prosecutors, happened just a few miles from Hunt’s home. Police said James Fairbanks went to 64-year-old Mattieo Condoluci’s home, which he randomly found through an internet search for registered sex offenders, and shot the older man with a rifle seven times when Condoluci answered the door.

Nebraska Freedom Coalition responded to the lawsuit with a lengthy statement saying it is a defender of free speech, which it uses to “question, challenge, and seek truth.” The group will not be intimidated or deterred, it said. It later issued a tweet that offered a mocking apology and made contemptuous references to both Hunt and her child.

“We’re so sorry for calling Megan a groomer for actively transitioning her daughter to a son while simultaneously advocating for the right to chop the breasts off her ‘son’. Definitely NOT groomer behavior AT ALL,” the tweet read.

Hunt’s lawsuit says free speech rights don’t cover false criminal allegations and intentional disinformation.

“There is no constitutional right to speak or publish damaging falsities accusing someone of serious crimes they did not commit,” the lawsuit reads.

Peterson, Anthony and Shirley did not immediately respond Thursday to an email sent to Nebraska Freedom Coalition seeking comments from them individually. A voicemail left for Shirley was not immediately returned. Publicly listed phone numbers for Peterson and Anthony could not be found Thursday.

Attorney Adam Morfeld with the Nebraska Legal Action Fund, which is representing Hunt, also took issue with the group’s First Amendment claim.

“Maliciously accusing Nebraskans of grooming and abusing children with no factual basis only seeks to defame, harass and marginalize them,” Morfeld said. “The Nebraska Legal Action Fund will use all the legal tools at our disposal to protect Nebraskans and expose extremists, their tactics, their supporters, and misinformation.”

Hunt’s lawsuit, filed in Douglas County District Court, seeks an unspecified amount in damages and legal costs and asks for a jury trial.

At least 20 states have now enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, and most of those states — including blocked Florida from enforcing its ban on three children who have challenged the law.

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Nebraska lawmaker sues conservative PAC for defamation, says online attacks led to threats