State wildlife biologist sues Tahoe bear advocates
A Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist is suing a Lake Tahoe bear advocacy group for online comments he claims have damaged his reputation and caused him emotional distress.
Carl Lackey, a Carson Valley resident and state wildlife biologist at NDOW for more than 20 years, filed a lawsuit against the Homewood-based Bear League and several Lake Tahoe residents for engaging “in a defamatory, slanderous and libelous smear campaign” resulting in “widespread publicity of highly offensive and erroneous information that placed [him] in a false light and resulted in harm to his reputation.”
In addition to the Bear League, the suit names Ann Bryant, Homewood resident and executive director of the nonprofit group; Carolyn Stark, Incline Village resident and creator of the Facebook Page “NDOW Watch: Keeping them transparent;” and Mark E. Smith, Incline Village resident and creator of the Facebook Page “Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame.”
The suit states that the defendants “have and continue to initiate public comment threads on their public Facebook pages and other Facebook pages slandering [Lackey] in his official capacity as a state employee and urging the public at large to shame and harass [him] so that he will lose his job and/or feel threatened enough to leave the community.”
Lackey is seeking an unspecified amount of money for the alleged defamation and emotional distress.
Lackey’s lawsuit includes over 20 comments from the Facebook pages of the Bear League, Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame, and NDOW Watch.
While some comments are written by the defendants themselves, others are written by individuals not named in the suit.
The Sacramento-based firm Molsby & Bordner is representing the Bear League, Bryant and Smith, but has not yet responded in court.
“We are of the belief that the lawsuit Mr. Lackey has filed against the Bear League has no merit and we plan to vigorously defend all allegations against our clients,” attorney Cameron Bordner told the Tribune.
Stark’s attorneys have filed a motion for dismissal, claiming Lackey “feels that he can shut these Defendants up and stop their free speech, as well as shut up all the people on Facebook that make and made comments as well.”
They also argued that Lackey is a public figure and therefore any comments made about him must “meet a higher standard of proving actual malice.”
NDOW spokesman Chris Healy said the agency did not want to comment on the case, while Lackey’s attorneys Sean Rose and Thomas Brennan could not be reached for comment.
In 2015 Rose represented an Incline Village couple who claimed they were harassed and received death threats from Bear League members after they reported to NDOW that a bear had broken into their vehicle. The case against the bear advocacy group and executive director Bryant was settled for an undisclosed amount of money — a fact that Stark’s lawyers brought up in their argument.
“Mr. Lackey thinks that because there was a prior lawsuit by his … counsel, in which that case was settled for a confidential amount … that Mr. Lackey feels he has hit the proverbial lotto,” reads the court document.
Patrick File, an assistant professor of media law at the University of Nevada Reno, said there are three hurdles Lackey’s attorneys will face in proving their case.
“The first is a federal law called the Communications Decency Act of 1996,” said File. “And that law essentially has been interpreted to mean that the administrator of a website — and this could be a blog, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel — they can’t be held libel or legally responsible for content that is posted there by third parties.”
However, there have been exceptions when the content has been edited or curated, or the administrator has encouraged others to defame or harass, said File.
File also noted that both Nevada and California have strong Anti-SLAPP laws, which seek to stop strategic lawsuits against public participation.
“I think it can be fairly argued that Carl Lackey in this circumstance would be a public official, though there is probably case law that could go either way on that,” said File. “There’s a higher bar to prove defamation for public officials and public figures.”
Lackey’s lawyers must not only prove that what was said was false and harmful, but that it was also “said with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for whether it was true or not.”
A court date has not yet been set for the case, which was filed in the Second Judicial District Court in Reno.