By Roger Roy
A judge Tuesday threw out a $1 million lawsuit by an Orange County Republican Party official against a rival GOP official who called him a neo-Nazi.
Doug Guetzloe, a leader of the group’s conservative wing, in August sued Deborah Kirkwood, vice chairman of the party’s executive committee. The two have been at odds in a bitter feud over control of the local party.
Guetzloe’s lawsuit said Kirkwood maliciously damaged his reputation when she told a newspaper reporter in June that Guetzloe “is a neo-Nazi.”
Kirkwood said the remark, which was printed in The Orlando Sentinel, was directed at Guetzloe’s political tactics and not at Guetzloe personally.
In his ruling, Orange Circuit Judge Bernard Muszynski said he dismissed the lawsuit because Kirkwood was stating an opinion and not a fact.
“The court finds as a matter of law Kirkwood’s statement comes under the ‘fair comment’ privilege within the rough and tumble world of political rhetoric,” Muszynski said in a written ruling.
Muszynski’s ruling said his decision was based on previous court findings that held that “expressions of ‘pure opinion’ are absolutely protected under the First Amendment. This is true … however pernicious an opinion may seem.”
Thomas Feeney, Guetzloe’s attorney, said he will appeal Muszynski’s ruling. Feeney said calling Guetzloe a neo-Nazi should not fall under constitutional protection.
“Because of the complexity of the constitutional issues in this case, we fully expect that it will end up at least at the level of the district appellate court,” Feeney said.
But Russell Troutman, Kirkwood’s attorney, said Kirkwood was stating an opinion.
“For example, if I said you were a thief, that would be an opinion,” Troutman said. “On the other hand, if I said that you stole $7 on a particular date, that would be a fact.”
Both attorneys also said they will ask Muszynski for a clarification of his ruling. Muszynski had first inadvertently issued a written order in Guetzloe’s favor, then issued the order in favor of Kirkwood, they said. The lawyers said the judge’s office apparently made an “administrative error” in the initial ruling.
The Orlando Sentinel
Wed., November 8, 1989