A federal judge has ruled that Councilmember Kshama Sawant did not defame two officers involved in the shooting death of Che Taylor when she called the shooting a 'brutal murder'
A federal judge has thrown out a defamation lawsuit filed against Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant by two Seattle police officers over public statements she made calling the 2016 police shooting of Che Taylor a racially motivated “brutal murder,” although a portion of the officers’ claims against the city will continue.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman threw out defamation claims against Sawant as an individual and said they could not be refiled. Pechman concluded that officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding could not show that Sawant was talking about them specifically when she condemned the shooting, even though they had been identified in the media as the officers involved.
It is the second defamation lawsuit that has targeted the fiery and outspoken socialist council member. An earlier lawsuit was filed by Seattle landlord Carl Haglund, who took offense when then-candidate Sawant displayed a poster showing a photograph of a large rat and referred to Haglund as a “slumlord.”
That lawsuit, also before Judge Pechman, was dismissed last spring after costing taxpayers more than $250,000 to defend. Defense costs for the Miller-Spaulding lawsuit were not immediately available.
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“Councilmember Sawant did not identify Officers Miller and Spaulding by name, nor did she provide any information that would even remotely allow listeners to ascertain their identities,” Pechman wrote in an order issued Friday. “Finally, Councilmember Sawant’s statements referred broadly to ‘the police,’ the ‘Seattle Police Department,’ and ‘systematic police brutality and racial profiling,'” but never specifically identify the two officers.
When they initially filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court, the officers named Sawant only, and said they were not interested in seeking monetary damages from the city. However, in an amended complaint filed in October after the case moved to federal court, they added the city as a defendant and included a claim alleging city officials retaliated against them by reopening an internal investigation into the shooting after they sued.
The city, they said, also paid Sawant’s legal bills and “resolutely backed Sawant.”
“(The city) attributed her defamatory comments to ‘advocacy’ and confirmed emphatically that she was acting within the scope of her official governmental duties,” the lawsuit alleged. The city did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Seattle attorney Dmitri Iglitzin, one of Sawant’s lawyers, said Sawant “said exactly what she said, and it’s on video for everyone to see. It’s clear that she is making a comment on the lamentable state of racial injustice at the hands of police in this country and in Seattle specifically,” he said.
“She does not mention these officers by name. Her comments are a social and political critique, and would be protected as a clearly core First Amendment issue,” said Iglitzin.
Telephone and email messages left Friday for the attorneys representing Miller and Spaulding were not immediately returned.
The shooting of Che Taylor, who was black, came at a time of heightened scrutiny nationwide into the police use of deadly force against African-American males. The president of the Seattle King County NAACP called the shooting a “coldblooded murder.”
A King County inquest jury found that the officers believed Taylor, 46, posed a threat of death or serious injury when Miller and Spaulding shot him on Feb. 21, 2016, while trying to arrest him as a felon in unlawful possession of a firearm. A Seattle police review board found last year the shooting fell within department policy and, after the inquest, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg declined to bring criminal charges against Spaulding and Miller.
The two officers, who are white, were conducting an undercover operation in search of another man wanted on a drug warrant when Taylor arrived in a car, jurors were told during the fact-finding inquest proceeding.
Lawyers for Taylor’s family have questioned whether Taylor was armed when he was confronted and whether a gun found in the car had been there before the shooting. They also questioned whether Taylor was given conflicting, confusing and overlapping commands from Spaulding and Miller and other officers backing them. The family has since sued.