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Politics and Government

Polis signs bills aimed at protecting free speech rights, educating Colorado students about media

Lawmakers meet in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed a law to protect citizens and news outlets from lawsuits that seek to curb their free speech rights.

Colorado joins nearly 30 states that have adopted measures to curb what are called strategic lawsuits against public participation. Witnesses testified during the legislative session about how they’d been sued for libel or slander simply for exercising their First Amendment rights.

The new law allows a citizen to seek an immediate stay of such a lawsuit by arguing it’s motivated by the citizen’s exercise of First Amendment rights. A higher court can order immediate dismissal of the lawsuit, and plaintiffs can be held liable for court costs and attorneys’ fees.

Democratic Reps. Lisa Cutter and Shannon Bird and Sen. Michael Foote sponsored the bill, which was modeled after a longstanding California statute that is considered one of the nation’s toughest.

“Our legal system should not be used to frighten people away from the free exercise of their right to speak. This law protects free speech and makes sure that our legal system is not abused,” said Bird, of Westminster, in a written statement.

From left: State Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, Gov. Jared Polis, Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Evergreen, and Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, at the signing of a bill aimed at protecting citizens and news outlets from lawsuits that seek to curb their free speech rights. (Handout)

Pete Kolbenschlag, a Delta County environmental activist, told lawmakers he was sued for libel in 2017 by Texas-based SG Interests, an oil and gas exploration firm, after he posted comments about its activities on public lands on the website of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

A district court dismissed the case and awarded Kolbenschlag attorneys’ fees. SG Interests has appealed.

“Now, more than two years later, I’m still held under the thumb of this frivolous and vexatious action against me,” Kolbenschlag testified in April.

Steve Zansberg, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, cited a 2015 lawsuit against the Denver weekly Westword by a doctor who objected to its reporting on him.

The doctor had pleaded guilty to felony charges involving prescribing himself painkillers. He later filed a lawsuit against Westword, claiming its reporting on the case had harmed his reputation.

“Westword paid a small fortune of its own having to defend that suit,” Zansberg said.

Polis also signed a bill to create a media literacy advisory panel in the state education department to study how to educate Colorado students about the role of the news media.

“As a country, our decisions are only as good as the information we take in to form our opinions,” Cutter, who also sponsored the media literacy bill, said in a written statement. “The media landscape has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Colorado’s students are facing the largest and most complex information landscape in human history and it’s crucial that we provide educators with the tools necessary to help our youth better understand the world around them.”

The panel will report to lawmakers on the possible introduction of media literacy studies in public schools.

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