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Paonia activist prevails in lawsuit

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A libel claim by SG Interests against Paonia resident Pete Kolbenschlag was dismissed on grounds "that the statement attributed to the defendant was substantially true."

On June 20, Delta County Judge Steve Schultz issued a ruling in a widely-watched defamation case that Kolbenschlag claimed was a SLAPP action for his years of effective activism. A SLAPP, or "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation," is defined as a tactic used to silence opposition by filing frivolous legal actions to hamper and hamstring citizens who dare speak out against powerful interests.

"SLAPP actions are a pernicious and undemocratic tactic that not only tie up our tax-funded courts with bogus claims, and waste taxpayer money, but also seek to chill free speech and community activism," said Kolbenschlag.

Kolbenschlag was sued in February 2017, by SG Interests (SGI), a Texas-based oil and gas company. "This matter has tied me up for over a year, based on a ridiculous claim that my substantially true statement, critical of this company, was somehow libelous. The judge got it right, and dismissed the complaint in its entirety," Kolbenschlag said.

According to Schultz's order granting motion for summary judgment, "The court ultimately finds that the defendant's statement was substantially true and therefore not actionable..." In addition, notes the court, the plaintiff "disregards the full context" of Kolbenschlag's statement, which was made in the public comment section of the GSPI website, stating that if the plaintiff holds it to exacting standards "would not only be unwarranted, but would be chilling to protected speech."

SGI is one of two companies accused of collusion in 2005, for rigging bids for oil and gas leases on public lands in Colorado's North Fork Valley, where Kolbenschlag has lived and been a high-profile activist for 20 years. The suit was based on comments Kolbenschlag made on a Nov. 28, 2016, article on the Glenwood Springs Post Independent newspaper's website regarding a different matter involving oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area. The comment referenced the settlement in a case brought by the federal government against these companies under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

In his ruling, Judge Schultz noted that "substantial truth is a complete defense to a defamation claim," that the statement left by Kolbenschlag was substantially true and not materially false, and that SGI therefore has no actionable claim. Judge Schultz also noted that numerous other media outlets reported the same information referred to in Kolbenschlag's comments, yet were not subject to any action by the plaintiff, and that the collusive activity for which the plaintiff was originally sued by the federal government was more damaging to its reputation than any mere reader comment.

Kolbenschlag was represented by Steven Zansberg, with Ballard Spahr. Zansberg has more than 20 years of experience in defending media companies and individuals and is president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

"It is outrageous that this oil company could bring such a groundless and frivolous lawsuit for the sole purpose of trying to silence one critic and intimidate others," said Zansberg. "The court's ruling recognizes this tactic for what it is and quite appropriately dismisses the baseless claim."

SGI is active in western Colorado, with plans for drilling dozens of new fracked gas wells in the valley. Although based in Texas, this privately-held company is the largest single campaign contributor, to the political campaigns of the region's congressman, U.S. Representative Scott Tipton over his seven-year career in Washington D.C., according to the website OpenSecrets.org.

"As SGI pushes forward with plans to expand industrial development on our public lands and national forests, apparently with the blessings of our elected representative, it is a crucial time for Coloradans to know that their ability to speak out for their own interests is not negotiable. We will not be shut down by intimidation and bully tactics," Kolbenschlag said. "I am very grateful to my attorney, Steve Zansberg; for the more than 320 locals and others that contributed to my legal defense; and for Judge Schultz's decision."

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