Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit against Austin Bulldog

By Marty Toohey
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Jan. 7, 2015

An Austin court has dismissed City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s campaign-season defamation lawsuit against the Austin Bulldog, an investigative reporting website.

District Judge Amy Clark Meachum ruled Wednesday that Zimmerman must pay the Bulldog $8,400 in attorney’s fees, plus $579 in court costs and other expenses and a $1,000 sanction for filing a frivolous suit, according to Bulldog attorneys. Peter D. Kennedy of the law firm Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody represented the Bulldog.

The dispute arose from the Bulldog’s reporting on court records of a custody dispute over Zimmerman’s daughter. The Bulldog contends it reported the court records accurately and thoroughly; Zimmerman claims the publication omitted key points that could have left readers with a different impression of whether Zimmerman abused his daughter and lost custody as a result.

The Bulldog contended that Zimmerman’s lawsuit was frivolous and intended to suppress unflattering media attention during his run for office last fall. The Bulldog sought to have the suit dismissed under a Texas law intended to prevent the use of lawsuits to stifle free speech.

“This ruling reinforces the right to publish a fair, true and impartial account of a judicial proceeding,” Bulldog publisher Ken Martin said in a written statement about the judge’s ruling, which he described as a “win for the First Amendment.”

“In fact, my story about Don Zimmerman’s loss of the right to have access to or even communicate with his daughter went above and beyond meeting that standard by quoting him at length as he denied the very facts contained in the court records,” Martin said.

The Bulldog published its article Oct. 9, and Zimmerman sued for defamation a week later.

Zimmerman said Wednesday evening that he had not seen the ruling and did not know if he could appeal, adding that he will if possible.

“I took the correct route and focused on the campaign and the people of District 6, and addressing the lies later,” said Zimmerman, who was sworn in as far Northwest Austin’s representative on Tuesday. “I have a side of this story that hasn’t been told. The whole point of the lawsuit was to get that side into the record, and we did not have a chance to do that. Now I’m in the middle of trying to get things done for District 6 … do I dump my duties to fight the legal system?”

Zimmerman said he was not sure Wednesday whether the court costs and any appeal would be funded out of his pocket, or from his campaign coffers.

“Was my running for office what caused the Bulldog to write that story?” Zimmerman said. “If so, you could argue it’s a campaign expense. But I don’t know yet.”