Federal appeals court says former Utah mayor's articles not defamatory

Associated Press

A former Utah mayor who wrote news stories under a false identity did not defame a former contractor in one of the articles, a federal appeals court ruled.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss the defamation lawsuit against former West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder.

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Winder wrote more than a dozen newspaper stories for Utah media organizations in 2011 using the name Richard Burwash. He wrote upbeat articles about his city and even quoted himself as mayor.

Contractor Chris Hogan alleged one of Winder's articles falsely claimed Hogan was accused of extortion and fired from UTOPIA, a fiber-optics network formed by 16 cities to provide Internet service.

The appeals court ruled the article accurately reported statements and documents in the employment dispute.

Hogan's attorney Steve S. Christensen did not return message seeking comment.

"Obviously, we're very pleased with the ruling," Winder told The Associated Press on Thursday. He declined to comment further.

One of the lawsuit's defendants was Deseret Digital Media, which published Winder's stories that used the Burwash name.

Jeff Hunt, who represents Deseret Digital Media, told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1ojJGrk) that the appeals court made it clear that defamation claims are limited by the First Amendment and that context is important when deciding if a statement defames someone.

Hunt said Winder's use of a false identity did not affect whether the court considered the article defamatory.

Winder's articles were submitted through a freelance system that allowed writers to contribute news items for the Deseret News, KSL television station, the Mormon Times and LDS Church News. Editors said they did not know the articles were submitted under a false name.

Winder later apologized to the West Valley City Council, which publicly reprimanded him for representing the city under false pretenses.