'Rough and tumble of local body politics'

An Invercargill city councillor's decision to sue Mayor Tim Shadbolt over his comments in newspaper columns has been put under the spotlight in a recent High Court judgment.

Much of the material Cr Karen Arnold has complained about "reflects the regular rough and tumble of local body politics", Justice Clifford says.

"In that context, freedom of speech issues arise."

Arnold is suing both Fairfax New Zealand and Shadbolt in a defamation case before the High Court.

The judge's comments, which question why Arnold is taking the legal action, are made at the conclusion of his written judgement in the first salvo of the court battle.

Arnold applied to strike out the honest opinion defences of both Fairfax and Shadbolt, but was unsuccessful.

"The defendants [Fairfax and Shadbolt] have largely succeeded. They are entitled to costs now on this interlocutory application," the judge's decision says.

Arnold says Shadbolt defamed her in four of his columns published by Fairfax in The Southland Times. Two of those columns were also posted on Fairfax's Stuff news website.

Fairfax and Shadbolt have defended the claims on the basis that the columns did not carry the meanings claimed; but if the jury decided they did and the meanings were defamatory, both Fairfax and Shadbolt would rely on the defences of honest opinion and qualified privilege. 

Justice Clifford's 10-page written decision outlines the background of the case.

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Arnold and other councillors had been critical of the substance of, and process relating to proposed commercial transactions involving the council's wholly owned subsidiary, Holdco.

Shadbolt and others associated with him were similarly critical of proposals supported by Arnold and others for the development by the council of kakapo and tuatara facilities, known as a kakaporium and tuatarium, designed to be tourist attractions.

Arnold argued it was not possible to say at the same time that the defendant's publication did not carry the defamatory meanings alleged, but if it did, those meanings were the defendant's honest opinion.

However, the judge disagreed and Arnold's application to strike out the honest opinion defence was itself struck out. 

The judge's decision also says Shadbolt counter claimed against Arnold, saying she defamed him in a letter she wrote to the editor of The Southland Times. 

Shadbolt's claim is based on his being defamed in the eyes of the editor, and not the readers. 

Arnold asked the judge to strike out certain defamatory meanings pleaded by Shadbolt in his counterclaim.

The judge declined her applications with an exception of one, in which Shadbolt said Arnold severely criticised him by accusing him of "a rambling verbal assault" on her.

Shadbolt said Arnold's reference to a "rambling verbal assault" would be understood to mean "severe, unjustified and unreasonably lengthy criticism in a manner characterised by such things as raised voice, name calling, threats, fierce gesticulation, swearing and intimidatory language".

The judge said he was unable to see how the phrase "rambling verbal assault" implied what Shadbolt believed it to imply.

 - Stuff

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