A defamation lawsuit brought by two Donald Trump-supporting teachers in Jonesboro against a politically opposed husband and wife who complained about the educators' activities at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally-turned-riot in Washington, D.C., survived a significant legal challenge on Friday.
Craighead County Circuit Judge Richard Lusby declined to dismiss the 3-year-old suit against Sean Allen, 54, and Emily Allen, 46, who asserted what they said about Valley View School District teachers Nancy Best, 67, and Cindi Talbot, 62, was speech protected by both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and state statute, the Arkansas Citizen Participation in Government Act.
In short, the judge said there's insufficient evidence now to throw out the case. His ruling opens the way for the sides to begin the evidentiary exchange process, called discovery, which will allow each side to question the other under oath.
"It is not the task of this court to decide who is right and who is wrong in the controversies that continue to divide the nation," the judge wrote. "Whether the allegations are true and whether factual issues pertinent to the Allens' defense will be resolved in the defendants' favor remain to be seen."
Best and Talbot are represented by Conway lawyer Chris Corbitt and William H. Bowen School of Law professor Robert Steinbuch, recognized as the state's leading authorities on open records and free speech.
The 50-page lawsuit filed in July 2021 claims the Allens, also of Jonesboro, have subjected Best and Talbot to a "nightmare" through a "political and personal witch hunt" to get them fired, stripped of their teaching licenses and arrested by making false accusations about the Jan. 6, 2021, Save America Rally to law enforcement, including the FBI, as well as their school district and state regulators. Best and Talbot have been cleared of all wrongdoing, according to their suit.
The couple are represented by attorney Alec Gaines of Little Rock, known as a leading free-speech and Freedom of Information litigator, and Rodney Smolla, who is president of the Vermont Law School. The Allens had sought to have the lawsuit thrown out on procedural grounds.
Their argument was that they had not violated any laws, in part because what they had said about Best and Talbot qualified for legal protection because it was either true or opinion.
Lusby rejected the couple's arguments in a 10-page ruling stating there's not enough evidence so far to show that the Citizens Participation Act applies to the Allens or that the statements they've made about the teachers is either constitutionally protected free speech, particularly about accusations of racism.
The judge further ruled that the Allens cannot have the litigation dismissed at this stage in the proceedings until the question of whether their motivations have been further examined since they are accused of deliberately lying about the teachers.
The teachers, asserting libel, slander and false-light defamation, are asking for a jury trial to decide on compensatory and punitive damages for reputation-damaging statements that subjected them to extensive embarrassment and harassment.
CORRECTION: Attorney Rodney Smolla is president of the Vermont Law School. Smolla’s title and employer were misstated in a previous version of this article.