1983 Colorado Tribal Libel Lawsuit Dropped Based on 1982 Libel Case

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In 1983, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s council members decided to drop a $1.5 million libel lawsuit based on the outcome of another case. / Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash.

In February 1983, the Western Colorado Report reported the author of a nonfiction book was freed of a $1.5 million libel lawsuit levied by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s council chairman and councilman.

What would now be a $4.5 million lawsuit was dropped by Leonard Burch and Edward Box, Sr., according to the Western Colorado Report. “The two say that a recent Colorado Supreme Court decision (Diversified Management vs the Denver Post) has provided the press with a higher level of protection than when the suit was filed,” the outlet reported. 

In the case referenced by Burch and Box, Eugene DeWitt and Diversified Management, Inc. sued The Denver Post and reporter John Toohey over two articles written by Toohey and published by The Denver Post on April 28 and May 12, 1974. 

According to the 1982 state Supreme Court opinion in Diversified Management, the articles covered some financial dealings of DMI and described the relationship between DeWitt, DMI and a banker named Saul Davidson. The articles also discussed investigations of DeWitt by the Colorado Real Estate Commission, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an Arizona grand jury, the U.S. Postal Service and “a variety of other federal and state regulatory and law-enforcement agencies.”

In 1975, DMI filed a complaint asserting claims for libel, invasion of privacy, outrageous conduct and conspiracy to violate civil rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Denver Post denied liability and asserted DMI and DeWitt were public figures and the publications involved matters of public or general concern. The trial court granted a partial summary judgment in favor of The Denver Post, ruling some of the challenged statements weren’t defamatory as a matter of law.

The trial began in October 1979, and at the close of evidence, all claims except libel were dismissed. According to the court opinion, after more than three weeks of trial, the libel claims were submitted to the jury, which returned a verdict in favor of The Denver Post.

DMI appealed but the Colorado Supreme Court said it determined in a previous case, Walker v. Colorado Springs Sun, Inc., that “when a defamatory statement has been published” about someone who isn’t “a public official or a public figure, but the matter involved is of public or general concern,” the publisher is only liable if they “knew the statement to be false or made the statement with reckless disregard for whether it was true or not.”

In its opinion on DMI’s appeal, the high court said, “We reached that result because we believed that a simple negligence rule would have a chilling effect on the press that would be more harmful to the public interest than the possibility that a defamed private individual would go uncompensated. In order to honor the commitment to robust debate embodied in the [First Amendment] and to ensure sufficient scope for [First Amendment] values, we chose to extend constitutional protection to any discussion involving matters of public concern, irrespective of the notoriety or anonymity of those involved.”

The state Supreme Court found DMI and DeWitt weren’t public figures but the issues involved in the reporting were matters of public concern.

Burch and Box reportedly said in a press release accompanying the withdrawal that “There is no question that many of the statements contained in the book are blatant falsehoods.” 

The Western Colorado Report noted, “researcher and Durango resident Jeanne Englert charges she was sued because of her active and continuing opposition to the proposed Animgs-LaPlata water project.”

“In my opinion, the reason the case was brought against me was because of my opposition to the Animas-LaPlata project.” Englert, who was active in a group challenging the formation of the Animas-LaPlata Conservancy District, said to the outlet.

The legal issue stands the test of time, even roughly 40 years later. NPR reported March 6 that a loss in a $1.6 billion defamation suit brought forward by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News could put the outlet in “real legal jeopardy” according to outside legal observers. The case will go to a jury trial in April.

NPR reported, “Private communications made public in legal filings demonstrate the network’s producers, stars and executives — even controlling owner Rupert Murdoch — knew the claims they were broadcasting were false, and at times unhinged.”

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