Better Boulder members compelled to testify in Rosenblum defamation case

Defendants have until December 23 to respond

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An unsuccessful city council candidate, seeking support for his claims of a conspiracy against him, is forcing members of a Boulder political group to give testimony in order to avoid having the case dismissed on the grounds that it violates First Amendment rights of free speech.

Steven Rosenblum filed suit in September against a group of political opponents, alleging defamation and a conspiracy to stop him from receiving endorsements in his run for city council. Rosenblum did not ultimately earn a seat, finishing eighth of 10 candidates.

“Defendants’ actions . . . severely damaged my reputation in the Boulder community in the crucial months leading up to the November 2, 2021 election,” his suit alleges. “Defendants accomplished their goal—that is, spread defamatory information about Rosenblum to prevent Rosenblum’s endorsements and election to city council.”

The claims stem from the amplification of Safer Leaks, a blog created in September 2020 that features messages from the Slack workspace of Safer Boulder, of which Rosenblum is a member. The anonymous leaker is also being sued as John Doe.

Several of the leaked chats include disparaging remarks about people experiencing homelessness and substance abuse issues. Boulder Weekly, in partnership with Boulder Beat, later reported on the leaks and the group’s organizing efforts and membership. 

Defendants include leading members of Boulder Progressives (Mark Van Ackeren, Katie Farnan, Ryan Welsh), Better Boulder (Eric Budd), and the local Sierra Club chapter (SarahDawn Haynes). All three organizations endorsed other candidates for city council.

The BPO defendants, as they are referred to in filings, asked the judge to throw out the case under Colorado’s Anti-SLAPP law, arguing that Rosenblum used the lawsuit “to chill free speech by citizens who oppose” his candidacy.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation are lawsuits that seek to punish people speaking out about an issue of public interest. Often brought by government entities, elected officials or businesses, they force defendants to go through costly litigation, in effect silencing them.

“Rosenblum filed this lawsuit against the BPO Defendants because they had the audacity to circulate Rosenblum’s own, private and ugly, statements about Boulder’s unhoused community,” the motion to dismiss reads, noting that Rosenblum has admitted to authoring some of the leaked posts. 

The only false information he names in the lawsuit is a link to a Reddit account, which Boulder Progressives wrote to readers that they did not believe belonged to Rosenblum. The link was removed before Rosenblum filed suit.

“This litigation’s true objective,” the motion to dismiss states, is “to harass and silence persons who challenge his fitness for office based on his own statements and those of his political allies.”

Charges of improper campaign spending were also leveled against Rosenblum with the city of Boulder for failing to claim the cost of the lawsuit as a campaign expense. 

Rosenblum’s attorney, former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, told the Daily Camera that the lawsuit was to protect Rosenblum’s “personal and professional reputation.” Rosenblum did not respond to a request for comment.

The filings themselves focus heavily on whether and how political opponents used the leaked Slack messages to discourage groups from endorsing Rosenblum as a candidate. 

Rosenblum’s legal team sought to depose three Better Boulder board members hoping to prove that allegation, even though a dozen-plus were in the meeting when the organization decided which candidates to back. Garnett did not say why those three were chosen, and said that he may not even interview all who were named.

“We just wanted to have the opportunity to take a couple depositions,” he says, because it’s necessary to provide a base level of evidence to support the civil conspiracy claims and successfully defeat the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Liz Hanson, Adrian Soper, and Bill Holicky were named as the three Better Boulder board members Rosenblum’s team would like to depose. Hanson did not respond to requests for comment; Holicky declined to comment.

Sopher, who donated to Rosenblum’s campaign, wrote in response to emailed questions that he “decided to not endorse anyone, as I felt all the candidates supported the issues I cared about; particularly relative to providing housing in this community.”

Sue Prant, who was at the meeting where endorsements were decided, said the decision had nothing to do with Safer Boulder, the leaks, or Rosenblum’s affiliation with them. They were mentioned by Budd, she said, but Budd didn’t aggressively argue for any particular position.

“Definitely [Rosenblum] came up and we discussed him,” Prant said. “We did consider endorsing him. We also discussed Mark Wallach as that fifth person” in addition to the four candidates The Coalition ultimately decided to endorse. “We ultimately decided a fifth person would hurt the Coalition. That was really the deciding thing.”

As for Safer Boulder and the leaks, “there was a feeling that we all say things in private that we wouldn’t want made public,” Prant said. “Because we didn’t have definitive facts and because it was a private channel, that didn’t enter into our decision.”

Tom Kelley, who is representing the BPO defendants, says his clients agreed to allow the depositions—a legal process known as discovery—because it would be quicker and easier than fighting the request from Garnett. 

“It’s not really important in resolving any issues we raised, but we were going to have a long fight about deposing three individuals,” Kelley says. “I’m anxious to move this case along as expeditiously as possible.”

Garnett and his team have until December 10 to collect testimony. A brief is due to the court a week later. Defendants have until December 23 to reply.

The status of the campaign finance complaint is unknown. Representatives from the city clerk’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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