Constituents have a Constitutional right to criticize

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It's hard to fault Moffat County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Marianna Raftopoulos for taking legal action against two of her biggest detractors.

After all, none of us likely could stand being an object of constant criticism without getting defensive. Raftopoulos seems convinced that her good name has been ruined by allegations of malfeasance and incompetence.

At the same time, it's impossible to condemn the defendants in Raftopoulos' defamation lawsuit, Stan Hathhorn and Jeff Taylor, for exercising their constitutional right to criticize their elected officials. Raftopoulos herself acknowledges the sanctity of the right to speak freely, but says Hathhorn and Taylor have gone too far. Her lawsuit accuses them of distorting her record of public service with lies -- speech which is not protected by the First Amendment.

The statements in question have appeared in e-mails and in letters to editor, usually backed with information taken from public documents that were acquired through Open Records requests from the County Courthouse.

Should two men be punished for saying they don't think Raftopoulos is very good at doing her job?

That question will be answered by the state's 14th Judicial District Court, which will have to determine whether Hathhorn and Taylor knowingly made false statements about Raftopoulos, or at least acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Defamation suits filed by public figures are rare because the legal threshold is so high that few plaintiffs can ever recover damages, Cortez attorney Stan Morris, a frequent columnist on free speech issues for GigaLaw.com, said Tuesday.

Plaintiffs who are public figures have to prove not only that they were hurt by bad words, but that they were spoken or written with "actual malice," Morris said.

The lawsuit is an unfortunate, but not unforeseeable, development in local county politics. The Board of Commissioners have made some questionable decisions that have led to a rocky financial picture and tougher public scrutiny. Raftopoulos says those decisions were made by the full board, not her alone, "in a public meeting after full public discussion and input." She feels she's been singled out and that Hathhorn and Taylor have made things "personal."

We'll leave it to the taxpayers to decide if Raftopoulos has been a good public steward. We'll leave it to the court to decide whether her lawsuit has any merit. But until it does, we can't criticize Hathhorn and Taylor for making their opinions known. We remind elected officials that when you work for 13,000 people, some of them aren't going to like you.

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