Arizona’s AG Sued Citizens: Deserved or Dumb Move?

Arizona Seal
Arizona’s AG is on a defamation warpath.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne is crying defamation. The state’s polarizing legal chief filed an action against the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance (AZPIA) – a watchdog organization – over an advertisement on the group’s Facebook page. In the ad, AZPIA claimed Horne was under investigation by the FBI. It also highlighted Horne’s alleged failure to remunerate a $400,000 fine handed down for inappropriate campaign fundraising.

Horne insists, however, that the group has their facts wrong. The attorney general points out that, technically, he is no longer the subject of an FBI investigation. As a result, he’s suing for defamation.

Questionably, Horne filed as a private citizen despite being a public official. Can he do that? Yes, he can. But the question is: will it work?

Horne Is An Attorney General; Can He Claim To Be A Private Person For The Purposes of This Defamation Suit?

Under Arizona defamation law, the standard for defamation is different for public and private figures. In short, public figures (celebrities, elected officials, high-ranking government executives, etc.) must satisfy the actual malice standard to win defamation suits – meaning the “famous” plaintiff must prove the defendant knowingly lied or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

The criticism under review, however, was about Horne’s tenure as attorney general. So, the court may not accept him filing as a private figure.

In the United States, political heckling is practically a national sport; heck, a national solemnity. As such, it’s tough to see how a judge will allow Horne to present his case as a private citizen.

Can Horne Win This Defamation Case?

If a judge doesn’t dismiss the case, does Horne have a shot at winning? It’s iffy. If he can prove material loss that resulted directly from a false statement of fact made in the ad, then sure, he’s got a shot. That said, the statement under review must be materially false, not just a small error. Also dampening the AG’s chances is the fact that Horne tangled with FBI at one point. Moreover, AZPIA did make an effort to remove the material in question after Horne contacted the group and explained the error.

But, you never know. We’ve not been able to read the actual filing, so it’s impossible to weigh in on the merits of Horne’s case. But judging from available media reports, this one may be an uphill battle for the plaintiff.

Update: The case went nowhere. Apparently, Horne dropped it.

Contact A Defamation Lawyer »