Virginia Supreme Court Turns Down Developer’s Appeal; Free Speech PrevailsMONTGOMERY COUNTY, VA – The Virginia Supreme Court has rejected developer Roger W. Woody’s appeal of a Montgomery County Circuit Court’s decision to dismiss his libel suit against Terry Ellen Carter, a Christiansburg resident who complained on her website about a large mound of dirt on one of Woody’s properties.
“What Mr. Woody did was wrong. He attempted to use the courts, wasting taxpayer dollars, to silence people who disagree with him,” said Carter. “Mr. Woody created problems where none existed. I had faith in the legal system, even under the pressure of this frivolous lawsuit, to support what is truly right. The Virginia Supreme Court clearly saw that Mr. Woody never had a case at all.”
Woody sought more than $10,000,000 in damages from Terry Ellen Carter, Tacy Newell –Foutz and two other Christiansburg residents who had been critical of the dirt pile and other debris. In his lawsuit, Woody claimed that Carter’s website, ThinkChristiansburg.com, injured him by referring to the dirt pile as “ Mount Woody” and by publishing a picture of the pile on which the word “Woodyville” was superimposed.
Woody claimed that Carter and the others illegally conspired to undermine his business, that they purposely interfered with his business operations, and that they committed libel. The ACLU of Virginia, which represented Carter, argued that Woody’s claims were groundless and that the First Amendment protects Carter’s right to criticize the dirt pile.
Woody’s case is what is commonly referred to as a SLAPP suit, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, wherein wealthy individuals or corporations sue persons who criticize them in public. The goal is not necessarily to win the case, but to intimidate the speaker.
“Censorship typically involves direct government suppression of speech -- a public library removing a book or a local government shutting down a demonstration -- whereas SLAPP suits indirectly employ the government by using the judicial system to accomplish the same goal,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “The average person simply does not have the financial ability to fight these kinds of cases in court—so they capitulate by censoring themselves.”
ACLU cooperating attorney Jonathan Rogers of Floyd and ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg represented Ms. Carter. The case was heard in Montgomery County Circuit Court in July 2008, and the Montgomery County Circuit Court issued its ruling in October 2008. Woody appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court shortly thereafter.
A copy of the ACLU’s brief in opposition that was filed with the Virginia Supreme Court is available at http://www.acluva.org/docket/pleadings/carter_briefinopposition.pdf.
CONTACTS: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg, (804) 644-8022