Michela Skelton fights back against attack ad with defamation suit

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Michela Skelton

Democratic candidate for Missouri State House 50th district Michela Skelton filed a lawsuit yesterday to stop a radio attack ad she says is defamatory.

Michela Skelton: quotes MLK, called a “radical”

In September 2017, while running for the same seat in a special election, Skelton posted a statement about recent protests and racial injustice generally on Facebook.

In the post she quoted from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, and concluded her post saying, “I stand with the protesters, marchers, and black leaders in St. Louis as they press for a more just society so we can all, as equals, fulfill the great promise of our nation and our constitution.”

A year later, Skelton is running again against Sara Walsh, the same Republican opponent she faced in 2017. Missouri’s House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC), which supports Walsh’s campaign, recently began running an attack ad against Skelton on local station KCMQ.

Echoing a recent GOP talking point accusing Democrats of mob rule, it contained the following message:

“Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line for us every day, yet a radical element targets these heroes. Sadly, one of those advocates for violent protest against police is right here in our community. Michela Skelton, the same Skelton who backs forcing all Missourians into a single-payer, government run health care system, even worse than Obamacare.”

According to HRCC director Casey Wheat, Skelton’s 2017 Facebook post quoting the Nobel Peace Prize winning father of American civil rights is their justification for for the attack.

Michela Skelton: “an egregious and flat-out lie”

In a Facebook video posted Tuesday, Michela Skelton hit back.

“Right now there’s an ad running on local radio stations that turns my call for solidarity, equality, and justice for all into an accusation of advocating for violence against the police,” she said. “That’s not just a lie or a half truth. That’s defamation.”

Yesterday, Skelton and her attorney Stephen Wyse filled suit in Boone County Circuit Court against the HRCC, opponent Sara Walsh, and KCMQ parent company Zimmer Radio and Marketing.

As attack ads are a routine feature in competitive elections, we asked Skelton why she felt motivated to take the unusual step of initiating legal action. Replying to News Growl in an email she said:

“The issue of misleading ads is particularly important because it discourages participation in the political process because people don’t know what or who to believe.

“The standard procedure for candidates and campaigns has been to ignore negative mudslinging to stay on your own message. I am of the opinion that this tactic has actually emboldened particularly third-party spending on ads that are less differing takes on the truth and more often complete fabrications meant to sow fear and division within the electorate. That has lead us to this dark and dangerous times in politics.

“I filed the lawsuit because I felt that I had a particularly compelling case. The offending ad was an egregious and flat-out lie.”

Is Sara Walsh complicit?

Skelton’s lawsuit is not only a rarely used tactic, but it takes the unusual step of naming her opponent Sara Walsh as a defendant. Legally Walsh can take no direct part in the activity of a third party group like the HRCC.

We asked Walsh for comment, but as of publication have received no reply. She did respond to the Columbia Daily Tribune regarding a story they had published on the lawsuit. In an email to them she wrote:

“I have also learned from your story that my opponent is planning legal action against me for something about which I have no first-hand knowledge and absolutely no control over.

“While you might be aware of the law, my opponent, an attorney, clearly is not. If your quote is correct, my opponent wants me to ‘tell HRCC to take it down.’ As you should know…I am prohibited from telling the HRCC what to do or what not to do. I am surprised that my opponent, an attorney, is ignorant of this very basic campaign law.”

But according to Skelton, she is actually asking Walsh to condemn the ad, not exercise control over the HRCC.

“Though she legally cannot participate in the creation of the advertisement there is nothing from stopping her from publicly disavowing the ad,” Skelton explained to News Growl. “Her refusal to do so is implicit acceptance and approval of the message.

“As a currently elected representative for our community it is incumbent upon her to step up and be a leader and call for an end to hate and division.”

The $30,315 HRCC payment to Zimmer Radio

News Growl also asked for comment from the HRCC (well, we tried – their website is broken) and Zimmer Radio and Marketing. As of publication neither has replied to our emails.

According to the Daily Tribune, the HRCC has spent $30,315 on advertising with Zimmer Radio, which serves a Central Missouri audience that covers the 50th House district.

In the same coverage, Zimmer director of programming Jamie Mac defended the decision to run the highly lucrative HRCC ads. Referring to a cease and desist letter sent by Skelton’s attorney, Mac said, “We have reviewed the claims in the letter, the ad, and the information provided by HRCC. Based on this review we have chosen not to pull the ad at this time.”

HRCC online attacks

While the HRCC may struggle to publish a functioning website about itself, it has no problem issuing multiple slick attack websites aimed at its ideological opponents, promoted through Facebook advertising. These include: HagintotheLeft.com, attacking Ben Hagin; PeggyProblems.com, attacking Peggy Sherwin; SnobbyRob.com, attacking Rob Bailey; and (copying a URL format popular with Scientologist attack sites) RealAdrianPlank.com, attacking Adrian Plank.

If Michela Skelton’s decision to file suit finds traction, the HRCC may be making regular trips to the courthouse in the near future.

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