VIRGINIA BEACH — Attorneys for Del. Cheryl Turpin of Virginia Beach have responded in court to a defamation lawsuit filed by conservative activist Scott Presler, who is seeking $5.3 million in damages for political ads Turpin ran during the 2017 election season that allegedly painted Presler as a racist.
The ads featured Presler and then-Del. Rocky Holcomb, who is now the Chief Deputy for the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office. Although Holcomb is not a party in Presler’s lawsuit, he is mentioned throughout the 37-page filing.
The lawsuit also names Daniel McNamara, who was Turpin’s campaign manager, as a co-defendant.
According to the lawsuit filed July 20 in Virginia Beach Circuit Court, Presler claimed that Turpin of knowingly ran false campaign ads that painted Presler as “a leader of a local hate group” who had “worked with and invited Neo-Nazis and white supremacists to speak” at rallies he had organized.
Presler’s attorney, Rhiannon Jordan, claimed in court documents that Presler is a “private citizen” with legal grounds to sue for being depicted that way in Turpin’s ads.
But in a Sept. 17 response to Presler’s suit, Turpin’s legal team — comprised of Kevin Biniazan and Jeffrey Breit of the law firm Breit, Drescher, Imprevento — disagreed.
According to their legal response, Turpin’s legal team believes that Presler’s past political activism — as an employee of ACT for America, vice-chairman of Virginia Beach Young Republicans, and chairman of the Gays for Trump organization — constitutes his being a “public figure.”
This is important, according to Turpin’s legal response, because the First Amendment “limits a state’s power to award damages in libel action brought by a public official or public figure against critics of his official conduct or speech.”
Based on their claim that Presler is a public figure, Turpin’s legal team believes Presler’s suit needs to prove that Turpin acted with “actual malice” in order to overcome the free speech protections afforded by the First Amendment.
The “actual malice” threshold raises the bar needed for Presler’s suit to move forward — a bar Turpin’s lawyers do not believe has been met.
Aside from defamation, Presler is also suing Turpin for “unauthorized use of name or picture,” citing Virginia Code § 8.01-40.
However, in their legal response, Turpin’s attorneys claimed that section of the Virginia Code “only related to commercial use, therefore the plaintiff (Presler) lacks standing.”
Presler is seeking $350,000 in punitive damages and $5 million in compensatory damages from Turpin and McNamara. Turpin, Presler and their respective attorneys were not immediately available for comment.
Presler’s legal team has yet to respond in court to Turpin’s retort.