A Harrisburg judge heard arguments Monday in a case that pits the state's ex-dog law chief against animal welfare advocates.
Jessie Smith, who served as the special deputy secretary for dog law under Gov. Rendell, is suing three activists, saying they "engaged in a relentless campaign of systematic defamation" through various electronic communications.
The suit alleges they accused her of engaging in a range of misconduct, including giving passing inspections to a dog breeder in exchange for sexual favors.
At a hearing Monday, a lawyer representing Montgomery County animal rights blogger Jenny Stephens, said Smith is attempting to quash his client’s constitutionally-protected free speech, according to the Patriot-News.
“Nothing less than a citizen’s right to speak freely...is at stake,” attorney Garen Meguerian said, in arguing for the judge to dismiss the case. If Smith succeeds in her case, “then no citizen in the commonwealth can question government officials...without the risk of being sued."
Smith’s lawyer, Andrew Barbin, said smear tactics aren’t protected by the U.S. Constitution. (As a public official, Smith must prove malice, a high bar to reach in defamation cases. I looked at that issue when the suit was filed in August.)
“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has made it very clear that false speech is not protected,” Barbin said. “You do not have a right to pollute the free exchange of ideas. That’s what (Smith’s critics) are accused of.”
Stephens is the founder of North Penn Puppy Mill Watch, a group that advocates against puppy mills. For a number of years Stephens has organized weekly protests against the Pets Plus store that sells puppies in Lansdale.
Also named in the suit is Chester County-based Main Line Animal Rescue founder Bill Smith and Philadelphia blogger Teresa Gervase.
The York Newspaper Co. and Lancaster Newspapers Inc. also are being sued for publishing stories that included links to a website that Jessie Smith claims included statements defaming her.