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No free-speech issue: Judge tosses lawsuit targeting Sarah Palin

September 28, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by her tour bus outside a hotel in Boston.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by her tour bus outside a hotel in Boston. (Steven Senne / Associated…)

It was a case of turning lemonade into lemons -- Sarah Palin-style, contends a self-described citizen lobbyist.

Chip Thoma, a longtime Alaska activist, said the former Alaska governor ordered her staff to destroy his reputation after he complained about the large number of tour buses driving by for a peek at the governor’s mansion.

Palin, he said in a federal court lawsuit, saw an opportunity to portray herself as a victim of his traffic complaints. She directed her staff to put out the word that Thoma was not only trying to drive her out of the governor’s mansion, the lawsuit contended, but had stooped to criticizing her daughter Piper’s lemonade stand -- a dagger Thoma insists he never threw.

The former governor’s real motive, he said, was to use him to explain why she was spending so much time away from Juneau; critics had suggested she shouldn’t be collecting per diem pay for living at her home in Wasilla, Alaska.

Though Thoma cited quotes purporting to be from Palin’s own emails to back up his story, a federal judge threw out his lawsuit on Thursday, ruling that the quotes weren’t admissible, and that Thoma’s 1st Amendment rights to free speech weren’t violated.

“Thoma chose to engage on a public issue, and although Thoma believes that he was insulted in response, this does not necessarily rise to the level of a constitutional violation,” U.S. District Judge Timothy M. Burgess said in his order. “Thoma remained free to express his opinion on the traffic issue -- he simply decided not to.”

Thoma, well-known in Juneau for helping lead the campaign to impose greater regulations on the cruise ship industry, decided in 2009 — the year after Palin had shot to fame by running for vice president — to pass out fliers complaining about the tour buses driving past Palin’s official residence.

Thoma’s information on what happened next came via a book, “Blind Allegiance,” co-written by former Palin aide Frank Bailey. The book contains a large number of emails Bailey said he took with him after leaving the job, and several of them, Thoma asserts, suggest that Palin saw Thoma’s anti-bus campaign as a way to turn around the spin on her frequent travels outside of Juneau.

At first, according to court documents that quote the book, Palin was amazed that Thoma, whom she’d never met, was even raising the issue: “Really? Is this a joke? I don’t even know how to take it … except we’ll hear that somehow this is my fault that I let the neighborhood go to hell in a handbasket. Kinda funny!” she supposedly wrote.

But Thoma’s court memorandum says Bailey went on to reveal that Palin and her staff decided to “push this story to the broader media.” They added “made-up speculation” that Thoma was also protesting about Palin’s children playing outside and running lemonade stands, his lawsuit said.

“That [tour bus controversy] is a good issue for us, so … please get it out there,” Palin supposedly ordered her staff.

The staff went to work, Bailey related in his book: “We managed to have published a nasty spin on what started out as bus congestion and pollution and turn this into Sarah’s Juneau crucifixion.”

The governor’s staff is said to have provided “talking points” on the issue to a Palin-friendly blog, Conservatives4Palin, which subsequently published a post, “Juneau Resident Attempts to Close Down Piper Palin’s Lemonade Stand.”

“It seems that Mr. Thoma doesn’t enjoy the Palin children very much,” the post said. Commentators weighed in on conservative blogs, referring to Thoma as “unhinged,” “drug-addicted,” and “sick.”

Palin herself appeared to love it, according to the book’s account cited in court papers: “This is hilarious! And [Piper’s] planning this [lemonade] stand again for the next sunny day.”

She was reportedly critical of her staff for not having gone even further to push the story in the mainstream media. “See, I wanted to get out ahead of this and provide another reason why I need to get out of Juneau more often, instead, Chip got to spin the story his way. I hope we didn’t blow an opportunity,” she complained in one excerpt quoted in the lawsuit.

From a legal standpoint, the purported emails amounted to nothing.

Burgess said he couldn’t consider Bailey’s book as evidence; merely quoting from it in court papers was no more than unsubstantiated hearsay, he concluded. “Thoma provides no evidence to demonstrate that Palin made these comments concerning Thoma or directed others to do so,” the judge said.

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