High court hears arguments in defamation case

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A Northeast Kingdom man says in a lawsuit that a local weekly newspaper should not have run a story on its front page containing information from a bulletin shared by law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for him and his brother, terming them a "possible threat."

And, Garrett Cornelius contends in recent arguments before the Vermont Supreme Court, the Chronicle in Barton should not have followed that up with a second article describing him as "loud and combative" during a criminal court proceeding.

That article added that Cornelius "offered verbal expletives to just about any officer" handling the case.

An attorney for the newspaper, which bills itself as "The weekly journal of Orleans County," defends both writeups. He cites the freedom of the press, adding that both stories were matters of public concern, and also raised an issue of public safety.

Cornelius' lawsuit has since been thrown out by an Orleans County trial court judge. Both sides in this contentious, long-running legal battle filed appeals, asking the Vermont Supreme Court to weigh-in.

For its part, the newspaper is seeking more than the $5,000 in attorneys' fees it was awarded in defending against the action, saying that figure has swelled well above $30,000.

Cornelius, a Newport resident, argues in filings that the case should be revived and allowed to proceed, in part, so he can find out how the newspaper obtained the "confidential" police bulletin it cited in its front-page article under the headline, "Cornelius brothers deemed a possible threat."

Matthew Byrne, a Burlington attorney with the the firm Gravel & Shea and representing the Chronicle, defended the newspaper before the state's highest court.

"Attacking the press for doing its job has become a standard tactic," Byrne told the justices. "At the same time, the economics of running newspapers has deteriorated. These factors have threatened the ability of the press to report, they have also threatened the ability of the press to engage in independent editorial judgment."

Byrne challenged the lawsuit under Vermont's "anti-SLAPP" law, with the acronym standing for "strategic lawsuit against public participation." It's a law that allows defendants in a free speech case to file a special motion to strike a lawsuit, or parts of the action.

That statute aims to protect several forms of expression, referencing "any written or oral statement concerning an issue of public interest made in a public forum or a place open to the public."

Justice Beth Robinson and Byrne at the hearing last week engaged in a bit of back-and-forth on the alert issued to police and the matter of publishing information from it.

"Is it your position that any content of these safety bulletins is a matter of public concern or that this particular content, given the context, is a matter of public concern?" Robinson asked.

"I think in this context it is a matter of a public concern," Byrne replied. "I mean, there's a separate legal issue about once information comes into the hands of the press, there's a very strong presumption that the press be allowed to publish that."

"This isn't a prior restraint case, this is an after-the-fact case," Robinson said.

"That's true," Byrne responded.

"One of the things I'm struggling with a little bit is there's a level of documentation of pubic activities that is public, and I think the line may have a little bit to do with the level of confidence we can have in the accuracy of that information," the justice said to the attorney.

She then talked of dealing with "intra-police" communications, including "be on the lookout" alerts, in matters that have not risen to such levels as those required for criminal charges.

"There's no limit on the amount of rumor and innuendo that can be part of those communications, because within that context that's not inappropriate," the justice said.

"I'm trying to think about a rule that recognizes the interest of the press in reporting on matters of public concern," she added, "but that also doesn't create a pathway for unchecked innuendo to become a matter of public publication without any sort of fact-check."

Byrne replied that not only is there an issue of public concern and safety at play, but also a matter of the public's oversight of law enforcement activities.

"There is a very important public interest in knowing what the police are up to," the attorney said.

Cornelius contends Byrne is taking an "inaccurate" and "expansive" view of the anti-SLAPP legislation.

"Vermont's Legislature intended the remedy to protect ordinary citizens from suit against wealthy plaintiffs, where they have expressed their opinions on issues of genuine public interest," Cornelius wrote in his brief filed ahead of the high court hearing.

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"In this case," Cornelius wrote, he has "limited means" and represented himself against a corporate entity with "liability insurance" and represented "experienced counsel."

"Most critically, this action did not arise from (the newspaper's) expression of an opinion on an issue of public interest. This action arose from (the newspaper's) direct dissemination of false information contained in confidential records."

He then added, "Nonetheless, (the newspaper's) abuse of Vermont's statute has effectively barred (his) discovery requests, and prevented material fact development for nearly two years. This Court ought not to allow (the newspaper) to benefit from this abuse any further, where this is clearly a meritorious claim."

He cited damage to his "character" and "reputation" as a result of the publication of the articles.

Cornelius, who took part in Vermont Supreme Court hearing via phone, highlighted the points made in his brief, as well as contesting other matters, including his reported conduct during a court proceeding.

"It's so important to hold the media to some standard of proof in reporting," he said to the justices.

Byrne told the high court that the articles were clear in sourcing the material reported, and used terms such as "alleged" or "allegation" where appropriate. Also, the reporter was at the court proceeding where Cornelius was arraigned on a charge of aiding in the commision of a felony, and that reporter, Paul Lefebvre, included his observations in the article, according to Byrne.

Orleans County Judge Robert Bent did throw the case out at the state trial court level, ruling that the newspaper had a constitutional right to publish the information.

One of the articles leading to the lawsuit was published July 20, 2016. According to that article, the Vermont Intelligence Center had issued a "safety bulletin" to Orleans County law enforcement officers, warning them of a "possible threat" from Cornelius and his brother, Christian Cornelius.

The bulletin stated, in part, "Both brothers have lengthy criminal involvements and are currently involved in active and ongoing investigations involving unlawful trespass, violation of court orders, and violation of several restraining orders."

"Although no direct threats to law enforcement have been made, their behavior has become increasingly violent, erratic and unpredictable. Both have a history of being argumentative with police during previous interactions and have expressed extreme animosity toward law enforcement."

That same article stated that Christian Cornelius had posted on his Facebook page a photo of Carl Davis, the head of the probation and parole office in Newport. That posting, which included a photo of Davis, stated that the Cornelius brothers were looking for him. "The Cornelius Brothers are seeking any information you may have, and all calls will be kept confidential. THANK-YOU."

Davis told the newspaper at that time that he considered that posting a threat.

The article also mentioned various run-ins with the law the brothers had over time, stating that in July 2014 Christian Cornelius killed Isaac Hunt of Island Pond, slashing his leg with knife.

"Mr. Cornelius said Mr. Hunt was breaking into his house and assaulting his brother with a shovel at the time," the article stated. "Following a long investigation, then State's Attorney Alan Franklin concluded that Mr. Cornelius' actions were justified and no charges were brought."

The Vermont Supreme Court heard arguments in a defamation suit involving the Chronicle of Barton.

The other article Garrett Cornelius took exception to was published Nov. 2, 2016. It dealt with his arraignment in court on a charge of aiding in the commission of a felony.

"Throughout the court proceedings, Mr. Cornelius was loud and combative and offered verbal expletives to just about any officer of the court tasked with handling his case," the article stated. "As he was being led down the stairs, Mr. Cornelius directed one last personalized curse at Newport Patrolman Royce Lancaster, who appeared to shrug it off."

The charge accused him of aiding his brother, Christian, who allegedly "failed to return" from a furloughed sentence to the Newport prison, according to the article.

In his ruling at the trial court level, Bent wrote that such criminal proceedings are a "public event and a matter of public record," and those who observe it can "report it with impunity."

"Describing (Cornelius) as `loud and combative' are qualitative statements based at least in part on Mr. Lefebvre's opinion," the judge wrote, adding that such opinions cannot be proved false.

"Mr. Lefebvre's statement that (Cornelius) `offered verbal expletives to any officer of the court tasked with handling his case' — is a mix of fact — that he cursed at Patrolman Lancaster — and hyperbole — that he offered such expletives to any officer of the court tasked with handling his case."

In addition, the judge wrote, "Mr. Lefebvre's `expletive' statement is not one that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person — in the 21st century, particularly, so-called `curse' words are more prominently featured in the nation's collective lexicon. Consequently, a reasonable person accused of using foul language would likely shrug off such a contention as a common occurrence."

The Vermont Supreme Court, which heard the arguments in the case last week, is expected to issue its own written ruling in the coming weeks.


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