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Crime and Courts

Appeals court dismisses Colorado lawsuit affecting free speech rights filed by energy firm against activist

The ruling in favor of Delta County activist Pete Kolbenschlag came in a case that helped lead to the enactment of a new Colorado law to protect citizens and news outlets from lawsuits that seek to curb their First Amendment rights

The Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A state appeals court has dismissed a libel suit filed by a Texas energy firm against a Colorado environmental activist, finding that the lawsuit sought to stifle the activist’s freedom of speech.

The ruling in favor of Delta County activist Pete Kolbenschlag came in a case that helped lead to the enactment of a new Colorado law to protect citizens and news outlets from lawsuits that seek to curb their First Amendment rights.

Colorado is one of nearly 30 states that have adopted measures to curb what are called strategic lawsuits against public participation. Kolbenschlag and other citizens testified during the 2019 legislative session about how they’d been sued for libel or slander simply for exercising their First Amendment rights.

The law was signed by Gov. Jared Polis on June 3 and takes effect Monday. It allows a resident to seek an immediate stay of such a lawsuit. A higher court can order immediate dismissal of the lawsuit, and plaintiffs can be held liable for court costs and attorneys’ fees.

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

In an opinion issued Thursday, the Colorado Court of Appeals dismissed a suit by SG Interests, an oil and gas exploration firm.

SG Interests sued Kolbenschlag for libel in 2017 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 in 2018 and awarded Kolbenschlag attorneys’ fees. SG Interests appealed but the appeals court upheld the ruling and directed the lower court to determine and award the fees.

Attorneys William Zimsky and Andrew Schill, who represented SG Interests, could not be reached by telephone for comment.

Attorney Steve Zansberg, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, represented Kolbenschlag.

“It is my intent that no other Coloradan who wishes to participate actively in government or on matters of public interest will be forced to endure what I have,” Kolbenschlag said in a statement Thursday.

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