Above: Dean Gassert is shown in a file photo in front of his new car dealership in Brooklyn. An ongoing lawsuit between Gassert and James and Janet Knutson, has been ruled in Knutson’s favor. Gassert claimed that the Knutsons defamed him.
By Julie Riddle
Disgruntled residents can publicly accuse others of wrongdoing as long as they have their facts straight and speak up for the greater good, the Michigan Court of Appeals said last week.
The higher court used a Columbia Township case to examine whether criticisms of an individual, made at a public meeting, can be considered defamation ― a false statement presented as fact that harms someone’s reputation.
Speakers who believe their comments to be true and offer them in an appropriate setting to report a perceived danger are, in most cases, protected by free speech laws, the higher court declared in an opinion released on Thursday.
Several years ago, a disagreement about the use of property on Brooklyn Road just north of Brooklyn sparked several lawsuits involving Dean Gassert ― who, in 2019, opened a used car dealership on the property ― and the property’s neighbors, James and Janet Knutson.
Although the township supervisor at the time, Robert Elrod, okayed Gassert’s plan to open the dealership, the township ultimately decided the property was not zoned for such a business and filed a lawsuit against Gassert to force him to close.
Gassert countersued, arguing Elrod’s approval and township meeting minutes from 2008 gave him the right to operate his business. He also countersued when the Knutsons sued him, claiming his business posed a nuisance. (More below)
Among other accusations, Gassert said the Knutsons’ son, Thomas Knutson, defamed him when Thomas Knutson spoke against the use of the property as a car dealership at two township meetings in September 2019.
Gassert claimed Knutson knowingly made numerous untrue and harmful public statements against him. Saying Gassert did not substantiate many of his claims, the appellate court examined two comments by Knutson, who at a public meeting called the business “illegal” and said, inaccurately, that Gassert was operating on a site labeled by environmental officials as contaminated.
No reasonable listener, the appellate court said, would interpret Kuntson’s use of the term “illegal” as anything more than his opinion that the dealership did not conform to zoning ordinances.
Michigan law permits most public criticism clearly offered as opinion, not as fact. It also protects statements made with obvious sarcasm or exaggeration.
Knutson was wrong ― and possibly harmed Gassert’s reputation ― when he said Gassert’s activities on the property violated state environmental laws. But, made at a public meeting to discuss zoning matters of public concern, Knutson’s comment was permissible under the rule of qualified privilege, the Court of Appeals determined.
Qualified privilege protects those who make a defamatory statement they believe is true, as long as they make that statement to serve a positive purpose or fulfill a legal, social, or moral duty.
That privilege sometimes includes statements made to an appropriate audience to warn others about a harm or danger. Qualified privilege does not protect intentional lies or statements made out of malice or spite, and its protections do not include comments published “to the world, via the internet,” according to Michigan rules.
Absolute privilege, or the right to make any statement ― including those that are false or said with malice ― exists in cases when speaking freely is particularly important, such as statements by witnesses, attorneys, and judges in court and by some governmental officials while performing their jobs.
While Knutson’s accusations about environmental violations were untrue, the appeals court said numerous records referencing the site as “contaminated” and its historic use as a laundromat indicate Knutson made his claim as a statement of perceived truth and not a deliberate lie intended to harm Gassert.
“Gassert’s claim of defamation is grounded in nothing more than the fact that Thomas — and ultimately the township — disagreed with Gassert’s position regarding the zoning of his property,” the appellate court said in its opinion last week, in which it refused to overturn a local court’s decision favoring the township and the Knutsons.
While the right to make accusations in public must be considered on a case-by-case basis, an on-topic criticism offered during public discussion of a matter of public interest ― especially, in this case, discussion sparked by Gassert himself ― is not likely to be censored by the state, the court said in its opinion.
“Indeed,” the appellate court said, “it is hard to imagine anything that could more effectively chill legitimate public debate.”
The Court of Appeals also rejected Gassert’s claims about minutes from a 2008 Township Board of Trustees meeting, in which the board voted to approve a rezoning request that Gassert said would permit a used car business on the property.
Whether or not that decision was made and properly recorded, a 2019 ordinance makes clear that the property cannot be used for such a business, the appeals court ruled.
While Gassert did not address Elrod’s approval of the business in his appeal, the appellate court noted that, generally speaking, a township can enforce an ordinance even if a township official has violated it.