Billings legislator threatened with defamation suit

Jessica Karjala at the Greater Yellowstone Central Labor Council Labor Day Picnic.

David Crisp/Last Best News

Jessica Karjala at the Greater Yellowstone Central Labor Council Labor Day Picnic.

A political candidate in Billings has threatened his opponent with a defamation lawsuit over remarks she made while campaigning for the House District 48 seat she now holds.

Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, told the crowd on Monday at the Greater Yellowstone Central Labor Council Labor Day Picnic that she had received a cease-and-desist letter over the weekend from a Billings law firm threatening a lawsuit.

“I’m very stressed out about it,” she said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

The letter, from attorney Emily Jones at Matovich, Keller & Murphy, P.C., said that Karjala had made “blatant misrepresentations and false statements” about her opponent, Republican Robert Saunders.

Robert Saunders

Robert Saunders

“Your malicious falsehoods are clearly aimed at injuring Mr. Saunders’ reputation and occupation, as well as deceiving voters about Mr. Saunders’ ideological and political positions,” the letter said.

Saunders had not responded to a telephone call or an email message by late Tuesday.

The letter stems from remarks Karjala made to someone identified as Alex, who followed up a visit by Karjala with a text message asking where he could find online comments she had mentioned. Alex said that Karjala had attributed a comment to Saunders “that only people who make 1 million or more per year should be able to vote.”

Karjala responded with a link to the website, where Saunders had responded to a question about whether it is desirable for 40 percent to 50 percent of members of Congress to have assets worth more than $1 million.

Saunders’ response began this way: “The Founding Fathers thought so. Our form of government was designed so that only people with a stake in the country’s future could vote.

“In the early days, this meant that only people who owned property could vote—just like today, in business, only shareholders in the company can vote.

“Likewise, only people who owned property could run for public office. Know why?

“Because the Founders (rightly) believed that the people with the most to lose would be the least likely to screw up. … Transients, college kids, and others without a dollar to their name have nothing to lose and are thus extremely unsafe custodians of power, being more likely to ‘experiment’, often with catastrophic results.”

Karjala said she had characterized Saunders’ response as a belief that it was OK for veterans who aren’t wealthy to fight for their country but it’s not OK for them to vote. She said she had mentioned Saunders’ response to two voters.

The letter from the law firm cited only the claim about limiting the vote to those making $1 million or more as an example of misrepresentations and false statements. The letter also cited two Montana libel cases in support of its position.

Interestingly, the plaintiffs in each case lost. In Lewis vs. Reader’s Digest Association Inc., a mining company claimed it was libeled in an article that Reader’s Digest reprinted from Good Housekeeping. The article asserted that the mine owner had attempted to lure sufferers from arthritis and other diseases to an abandoned uranium mine to soak up radon gas.

The court held in 1973 that the article raised an important health concern and that plaintiffs had failed to show that Reader’s Digest acted with actual malice.

In Chapman vs. Maxwell, the plaintiff, who was representing herself, failed to file a court brief on time.

The letter demanded that Karjala cease “malicious defamatory remarks” and that she send a letter apologizing to every voter to whom she had made such statements. Failure to comply, and to send a copy of the letter and the voters to whom it was sent to the law firm, “will result in further legal action necessary to compensate Mr. Saunders for his damages,” the letter said.

Karjala said she had consulted a lawyer about the letter but did not intend to respond.

Later, in an email exchange, she added this: “[Greg] Gianforte threatened to sue [Steve] Bullock over Bullock pointing out that Gianforte sued to deny public stream access and [Art] Wittich sued someone for writing a letter to the editor. Now we have Saunders taking a page out of their play book.”

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