Incumbent superintendent cannot proceed with defamation suit against challenger

state superintendent candidates

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The incumbent state superintendent cannot proceed with a lawsuit against his challenger over her “allegedly defamatory line” in the voters’ guide.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of candidate Maia Espinoza, who wrote “The incumbent ignored parents and educators by championing a policy that teaches sexual position to 4th graders!” in the voters’ pamphlet.

The statement references the comprehensive sexual health education curriculum, which was put forward by current superintendent Chris Reykdal and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It was passed by the state legislature, but a campaign to stop the curriculum collected enough signatures to put it to a vote of the people during the upcoming election.

RELATED: #4ThePeople: Your questions answered about Washington’s sex ed bill

The Secretary of State’s Office notified Reykdal about the statement and he responded by filing a petition to bar Espinoza and the SOS from publishing it.

Reykdal included a declaration stating that while he supported the new comprehensive sexual health education law, he never advocated for the teaching of sexual positions to fourth graders. Espinoza responded explaining that her statement was based on the curriculum handout’s reference to two pages in the book “It’s Perfectly Normal.”

Rumors have circulated around social media saying the new curriculum will teach students about sex positions. However, the OSPI has said students will never be given a “how-to” instruction related to sex. As for the book Espinoza reference, OSPI said it is not included in the curriculum, but is one of several optional books for parents wishing to continue the sex ed conversation at home with their children.

The Thurston County Superior Court ruled that Espinoza’s statement in the voters’ pamphlet was untrue, in part because of its specificity. The court also ruled that Reykdal would likely prevail in a defamation action based on her statement.

Upon the decision by the court, Espinoza sought direct expedited review, which the State Supreme Court granted.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Espinoza, saying the superior court made no findings regarding actual malice and thus granted Reykdal’s request in error. The state statute the court pointed to states that because Reykdal is a public figure, he must show “actual malice” to succeed in a defamation suit.

Additionally, the court ruled that the SOS can publish Espinoza’s original statement in the voters’ guide pamphlet.

Reykdal released the following statement regarding the court’s decision:

“Today the court delivered a split decision. While I disagree with the court’s majority, this case was about only one example of my Republican opponent’s alarming pattern of personal dishonesty.

Independent journalism confirms a dizzying array of additional falsehoods my Republican opponent made during this campaign: she claimed to have a Master’s degree she does not have; she claimed to operate a 501(c)(3) non-profit that does not actually have 501(c)(3) status; she claimed to be a teacher but never had a teaching certificate; she claims not to be a politician but she recently ran as a Republican candidate for the state legislature and has just taken $10,000 from the Washington State Republican Party for her current campaign.

Even in today’s court ruling, the majority opinion is not that the statement was necessarily true, only that it was not “demonstrably” false. The majority does not take a position on whether the “critique is fair”. The majority states my opponent’s voters’ guide claim is “inflammatory”, leaving it to the voters to decide.

Furthermore, in a powerful dissent joined by two other justices, Justice Gonzalez finds my opponent’s statement is “simply not a reasonable or even plausible interpretation of the facts.” Justice Gonzalez goes on to say, “allegations are so inherently improbable that actual malice may be inferred from the act of putting such extreme statements in circulation.”

What is clear here is that the taxpayer funded voters’ guide is being weaponized by candidate Espinoza to attack an opponent with inflammatory and untrue statements. Sadly, the court majority just opened the door to much more of this in the future.

Voters are in the middle of choosing who will serve as Superintendent for the next four years. It is one of the most important jobs in state government, and it requires someone who will act with honesty, integrity, and transparency. I ask my fellow Washingtonians to use their vote to reject the lies, disinformation, and falsehoods they’ve heard from my Republican opponent throughout this election.”

Espinoza’s campaign released the following statement Friday:

“Reykdal has made a habit of painting Espinoza’s stellar record as untruthful all the while blatantly lying about the content of this bill. It’s sad that the chief of Washington’s schools has so little integrity,” said Espinoza’s campaign manager Monica Marchetti.

“This is a huge win for parents across the state,” said Espinoza, “we knew this statement to be true, and I’m happy to have this recognized by our State’s highest court.”

Read the court’s findings here.