By Terri Jo Neff |
The Arizona Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday morning in a first of its kind case about whether a political candidate or campaign committee can be held liable under state law for defaming a third party or a private company while attacking a political opponent.
Pamela Young claims she and her company Models Plus International (doing business as The Young Agency) were defamed and presented in a false light by campaign ads approved by state Sen. Wendy Rogers in 2018. At the time, Rogers was running for U.S. House of Representatives against Steve Smith, a state senator who had worked for Young’s Christian-based modeling company and talent agency for about a decade.
Young alleges Rogers’ campaign utilized radio, telephone, and direct mail ads which gave the impression Young and her company were involved in or condoned sex trafficking of young children. One such ad called Smith “a slimy character whose modeling agency specializes in underage girls and advertises on websites linked to sex trafficking.”
Rogers’ campaign also alleged Smith advertised on the Model Mayhem website, which the campaign described as being “full of pornographic material, which has also been involved in human trafficking.”
Smith lost to Rogers in the 2018 Republican primary by less than seven points, but Rogers lost in the General Election.
Young sued for defamation and invasion of privacy. Rogers has continually argued her 2018 ads never “directly” tied Smith to The Young Agency and never directly linked the company to any illegal conduct.
But the ads did not set well with several prominent Republicans, including Congressman Andy Biggs who called Rogers’ effort “one of the most despicable ads in campaign history.”
In 2019, a Maricopa County judge denied a motion by Rogers and her husband to dismiss Young’s claims. However, the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the lower court in December 2020, ruling Young had not presented sufficient evidence to move her lawsuit forward against the defendants.
Young filed a petition for review to the Arizona Supreme Court in January seeking for her lawsuit to be reinstated. Rogers’ husband Hal Kunnen and her official campaign committee are also named as defendants.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed an amicus curiae brief in the case in June after which the justices set oral arguments for Sept. 28. A decision against Rogers would reinstate Young’s case, which could have major ramifications in how election advertising is conducted in Arizona and protect the rights of employers whose employees run for public office.
Bill Montgomery, who in 2018 was Maricopa County’s elected county attorney, denounced Rogers’ ads as “the worst kind of politics.” Montgomery was later appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to the Arizona Supreme Court. He has recused himself from hearing Rogers’ petition. In his place, Judge Philip Espinosa of the Arizona Court of Appeals will sit in on arguments.
The ads also did not set well with Kathleen Winn, who is a member of the Maricopa County Community College District board. She is also an expert on child sex trafficking in Arizona.
“If you happen to believe one of your opponents is exploiting children, trafficking minors, selling them on a website for sex producing a political attack ad is NOT your first course of business,” Winn said. “Contacting law enforcement to report the alleged crime is what you need to do.”
Rogers was elected to the state Senate for LD6 in November 2020.