PAONIA CO – On June, 20 Delta County Judge Steve Schultz issued a ruling in a widely-watched defamation case that the defendant, Pete Kolbenschlag (pictured center), claimed was a SLAPP action for his years of effective activism. A SLAPP–or “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” is a tactic used to silence opposition by filing frivolous legal actions to hamper and hamstring citizens that dare speak out against powerful interests.
“SLAPP actions are a pernicious and undemocratic tactic that not only tie up our tax-funded courts with bogus claims, and waste taxpayer money, but also seek to chill free speech and community activism,” said Pete Kolbenschlag.
Kolbenschlag was sued in February 2017 by by SG Interests (SGI), a Texas-based oil and gas company. “This matter has tied me up for over a year, based on a ridiculous claim that my substantially true statement, critical of this company, was somehow libelous. The judge got it right, and dismissed the complaint in its entirety,” Kolbenschlag said.
SGI is one of two out-of-state companies accused of collusion in 2005, for rigging bids for oil and gas leases on public lands in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where Kolbenschlag has lived and been a high-profile activist for 20 years. Kolbenschlag’s November 2017 reader comment on a article regarding a different matter involving oil and gas leases in the Thompson DIvide area referenced the settlement in a case brought by the federal government against these companies under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
In his ruling, Judge Schultz noted that “substantial truth is a complete defense to a defamation claim,” that the statement left by Kolbenschlag was substantially true and not materially false, and that SGI therefore has no actionable claim. The judge also noted that numerous other media outlets reported the same information that Kolbenschlag did, yet were not subject to any action by the plaintiff, and that the collusive activity for which the plaintiff was originally sued by the federal government was more damaging to its reputation than any mere reader comment.
Kolbenschlag was represented by Steven Zansberg, with Ballard Spahr, who has long defended our first freedom: the right to free speech.
“It is outrageous that this oil company could bring such a groundless and frivolous lawsuit for the sole purpose of trying to silence one critic and intimidate others.” Zansberg said. “The court’s ruling recognizes this tactic for what it is and quite appropriately dismisses the baseless claim.”
SGI is active in the area, with plans for drilling dozens of new fracked gas wells in the valley. Although based in Texas, this privately-held company is the largest single campaign contributor, over his 8 year career in Washington D.C., to the political campaigns of the region’s congressman, U.S. Representative Scott Tipton according to the site OpenSecrets.org.
“As SGI pushes forward with plans to expand industrial development on our public lands and National Forests, apparently with the blessings of our elected representative, it is a crucial time for Coloradans to know that their ability to speak out for their own interests is not negotiable. We will not be shut down by intimidation and bully tactics,” Kolbenschlag said. “I am very grateful to my attorney, Steve Zansberg; for the more than 300 locals and others that supported my legal defense; and for Judge Schultz’s decision.”
Colorado’s North Fork Valley is the state’s premier organic farming region, one of only two federally designated wine regions in the state, and a Colorado Creative District. Many in the valley have long and vehemently opposed plans by several oil and gas drilling and fracking companies to greatly expand industrial development in this bucolic valley.
Photo by RB Lehman, courtesy DESMOG.com