The Supreme Court of Washington this week ruled against state schools chief Chris Reykdal, who sued his reelection opponent, Maia Espinoza, for defamation.
In her official voter guide statement, Espinoza claimed Reykdal championed a policy that taught sex positions to fourth graders in a voter guide statement. Before the primary, and in response to Reykdal’s initial suit, a Thurston County Superior Court judge said the statement was false, and ordered it stripped from the guide. Espinoza appealed directly to the state’s highest court.
The decision reverses the lower court’s July ruling in favor of Reykdal, and orders the secretary of state to republish Espinoza’s unedited statement on its website, and in voter guide materials distributed for the general election, should Espinoza advance. Friday results from the Aug. 4 primary showed her in the top two, with 24.59% of the vote. Reykdal had 39.96%.
The lower court ruling contended Espinoza’s statement was false, and that Reykdal would likely prevail in a defamation case. The state Supreme Court’s ruling, relayed in a summary sent to the parties on Thursday, did not weigh in on whether the statement was true, only that Reykdal did not show a “very substantial likelihood of prevailing in a defamation action.” Washington state law prohibits false statements about candidates in voter guides. But in order for language to be removed, a court has to rule that language is defamatory.
Proving defamation requires evidence that Espinoza acted with “actual malice.” In summary of the ruling, the court cited the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, which defines the actual malice standard used to decide defamation cases as speech made with the knowledge that it was false, or with “reckless disregard” about its accuracy.
The legislature recently passed a law — that Reykdal supported — mandating “comprehensive sexual education.” The statement in question in Espinoza’s platform, that “the incumbent ignored parents and educators by championing a policy that teaches sexual positions to 4th graders,” refers to supplemental reading recommended in a handout from one of a few curricula that districts could adopt to pass to satisfy that law. Espinoza’s campaign manager said the book “includes images of sexual positions, masturbation, etc.,” she said.
The curriculum that cites the book in question was listed on a state education department list of several curricula that would meet state standards under the new law. Districts also have the option of creating their own materials that meet the requirements of the law, and parents would be able to opt their kids out of those lessons.
The law has yet to be implemented. Staunch opponents mounted a successful effort for a referendum to repeal the law, and voters across the state will decide if it stands this November.
Espinoza said on Friday that she felt “vindication” in that her statement was appropriate, and said Reykdal needed to be “held accountable for the bill” that he championed.
In a text message, Reykdal said, “This decision permits all future candidates to use the taxpayer funded voter guide to lie without accountability. That harms voters, taxpayers, and candidates who are subject to the lie.” Voter guides in Washington contain a disclaimer that the statements are not fact-checked.