Defamation lawsuit against Del. Cheryl Turpin hinges on definitions

Scott Presler has filed a defamation lawsuit against Del. Cheryl Turpin for ads, including the two above, describing Presler and then-Delegate Rocky Holcomb as racists with ties to Neo-Nazis. This image is presented as evidence in Presler's suit (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Virginia Beach Circuit Court)
One of Del. Cheryl Turpin’s 2017 political ads at the center of Scott Presler’s defamation lawsuit (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Virginia Beach Circuit Court)

VIRGINIA BEACH — In the slow-motion legal churn of a defamation lawsuit against Del. Cheryl Turpin, definitions are everything.

Scott Presler is accusing Turpin of knowingly running false campaign ads that featured Presler during Turpin’s 2017 campaign against then-Del. Rocky Holcomb.

Presler claimed the ads painted him as a racist and “leader of a local hate group,” which damaged his professional reputation. Although Holcomb is not a party in the lawsuit, he is mentioned throughout the 37-page filing.

Defining ‘public figure’

Turpin’s lattorney filed a demurrer in September 2018, which questioned the sufficiency of Presler’s complaint and insisted Presler met the definition of a “public figure.” 

Presler’s attorney, Rhiannon Jordan, disagrees.

Jordan lays out her opposition in a Jan. 2 legal response, claiming Presler is not a public figure; has never worked with hate groups in a leadership capacity; nor is Presler associated with hate groups in any way.

Presler and his attorneys have consistently said Presler does not associate with neo-Nazis.

Related story: Virginia Beach delegate: I didn’t know volunteer worked with hate group

A public figure — defined by Presler’s most recent court filing as one who has “thrusted themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies” — may claim defamation only if a printed and false statement that defames their reputation is published with “actual malice.”

People who are not public figures need only prove a defendant acted with “negligence” — a lower legal standard than “actual malice” — which is why the question of whether Presler meets the definition of a public figure is so central to the case.

Whether Presler is to be considered a “public figure” who acted in a “leadership role” for a “hate group” — and how those keywords are defined by the courts — could determine which legal yardstick is used to judge Turpin’s political ads featuring Presler.

Not associated with a hate group

Contrary to Turpin’s political advertisements at the center of the defamation lawsuit, Jordan claimed in her Jan. 2 filing that Presler is “not associated with a hate group,” and specifically referenced ACT for America as “not being a hate group.”

ACT has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2015, according to the SPLC website.

Related story: Out of political division, activism ascends at opposing Virginia Beach rallies

“What are their qualifications to label ACT a hate group?” Jordan asked. “Do they have any liberal groups they list as hate groups on their website? Or is it just all just conservative, right-wing groups?”

The SPLC website lists a map of all known hate groups in America, which contains a mix of religious, neo-Nazi, extreme environmentalist, white supremacist and black nationalist hate groups.

A leader, or not

Presler was noted as the national coordinator for a series of anti-Muslim demonstrations in June 2017 called the “March Against Sharia,” according to an article from NPR. But the title of “national coordinator” is of little consequence in defining Presler as a public figure, Jordan said.

“That doesn’t make him a public figure in general, nor does it make him a public figure for this controversy,” Jordan said. “This controversy is the election between Rocky Holcomb and Cheryl Turpin, and Scott did not insert himself into that controversy in anyway.”

Jordan said it will be several months before there is a hearing for Turpin’s demurrer filing, and it could be up to six months before a trial date is set.

For more background on Scott Presler’s lawsuit, visit past Southside Daily articles:

Follow Joshua on Twitter @WeinsteinReport or email him at Joshua@localvoicemedia.com

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