Standing outside Seattle police headquarters on a bright, brisk morning last year, city council member Kshama Sawant clutched a megaphone and condemned the cops for killing a 46-year-old black man.
“The brutal murder of Che Taylor—the blatant murder at the hands of the police—shows how urgently we need to keep building our movement for basic human rights for black people and brown people!” she shouted to the gathered protesters. Like Sawant, they believed officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding racially profiled Taylor before shooting him in North Seattle on February 21, 2016.
The officers countered that they recognized Taylor as a felon and suspected him of illegally carrying a handgun; they said they fired after he reached for the weapon. A year later, a jury cleared them of wrongdoing. In August, the men sued Sawant, alleging defamation. They didn’t, however, name the city as a defendant, leaving council president Bruce Harrell with an unusual choice—whether to defend her.
A city’s responsibility to represent council members in court hinges on whether or not they were conducting city business during the contested incident. The officers argue Sawant wasn’t on city time when she appeared at the protest, and they said they don’t want “one red cent of public money” used on the case—though their lawyer has threatened to add the city to the lawsuit if it chose to defend her.
Harrell wasn’t cowed. “That is the cost of free speech,” he wrote in an op-ed explaining his decision. Pete Holmes, city attorney of Seattle, fears failing to support Sawant could inhibit how elected officials publicly discuss controversies. It might also discourage candidates from running for office if they think it exposes them to liability or steep litigation costs, First Amendment lawyer Michele Earl-Hubbard says.
A second defamation case against Sawant is estimated to run taxpayers $185,000. In September, landlord Carl Haglund sued after she called him a “slumlord.” Like the officers, Haglund claims Sawant slandered him.
But such cases are notoriously difficult for plaintiffs to win, Earl-Hubbard says. Haglund must prove Sawant’s words were more harmful to his reputation than the truth. (To wit: He’s been cited by the city for more than 200 housing code violations.) What’s more, Earl-Hubbard trusts the public understands Sawant was expressing an opinion when she called Taylor’s death a murder, and an opinion can’t be “provable as false”—the ultimate defense against defamation.
Sawant can be divisive. Even some colleagues call her rhetoric inflammatory (interim mayor Tim Burgess has described her language as “attacking”). But others—like police reform activist and Che Taylor’s brother, Andrè —consider her a fierce advocate for people of color. Holmes, who is representing Sawant in the defamation cases, doesn’t have to take a side in this one.
“What I feel about council member Sawant’s political views or how she engages in political activity is frankly irrelevant. Elected officials have pretty broad First Amendment rights.”