State Rep. Michelle Caldier published statements last fall that were “offensive and potentially distorted,” according to a Kitsap County judge — but they didn’t rise to the level of libel.
For the moment, that’s the final word in a lawsuit filed by former state Rep. Larry Seaquist, who lost a bruising campaign to Caldier, R-Port Orchard, last November. Seaquist filed suit shortly before the election, accusing Caldier of spreading falsehoods in campaign materials.
Superior Court Judge Jay Roof ruled Thursday that Seaquist failed to show he could prevail on his claims at a potential trial, effectively killing the suit.
The argument grew out of Aug. 29 editorial board interviews at the Kitsap Sun’s offices in Bremerton. Caldier and Seaquist attended.
After the meeting, Seaquist and Caldier walked to the parking lot. Caldier got into her car, a late-model hardtop convertible, and retracted the roof. Seaquist took a picture of it. In court documents, he said later that he admired the vehicle and wanted to record the make and model.
According to court records, Caldier noticed what Seaquist was doing and asked him if he’d taken a picture. Seaquist reportedly laughed and said he had.
The incident turned into campaign fodder. Caldier posted a statement on her Facebook page, saying, “I felt like I was being stalked!”
She subsequently filed a police report accusing Seaquist and other “subjects” of following her and taking pictures of her and her home. Police told her Seaquist had committed no crime, court records state. Caldier’s campaign later posted a YouTube video that said “Seaquist was caught secretly photographing Michelle, invading her privacy,” citing the police report.
In an Oct. 10 radio interview, Caldier referred to the incident, saying, “I’ve been actually harassed and had people take pictures of me, had my opponent take pictures of me.”
A subsequent Caldier campaign mailer used a photoshopped image of Seaquist’s face attached to a pair of hands, hunched over with a camera. The mailer referred to the police report and described Seaquist as “sneakily” taking pictures of Caldier, equating his behavior to stalking and harassment.
Seaquist ultimately filed suit. Caldier moved to strike the suit, citing Washington’s anti-SLAPP statute, which bars nuisance lawsuits theoretically intended to curb free speech.
In his ruling, Judge Roof said that Seaquist could not prove outright falsehoods by Caldier, and that her impression of being stalked was a matter of opinion. He added that statements issued in the heat of a fierce campaign created additional complexity.
“Our society is well-acclimated to exaggeration, biased inaccuracy and distorted campaign literature,” the ruling states.
Seaquist’s attorney, Anthony Otto, said Friday that he and his client were disappointed by the decision.
“We’re looking real hard at an appeal,” he said.