By Paul Gable
The lawsuit filed recently by Republican candidate John Gallman against his opponent Luke Rankin and a host of others who supported Rankin’s reelection raises important questions about protected political speech and other activities during a campaign.
The lawsuit alleges libel/slander, invasion of privacy (private medical records) and conspiracy among the various groups of defendants to destroy Gallman’s reputation.
Political speech has always been given the broadest of interpretations by the courts under First Amendment protections. However, making a statement you know to be false but publishing or broadcasting it anyway is termed “reckless disregard for the truth”, which the lawsuit alleges.
Gallman, Rankin and Carter Smith were the three candidates vying for the Republican nomination for S.C. Senate District 33 in the June 9, 2020 primary election. Gallman and Rankin faced off in a primary runoff to determine the nomination on June 23, 2020.
According to the lawsuit complaint, a 531-page dossier on Gallman was compiled containing documents from Gallman’s divorce proceedings and notes from a forensic interview conducted by the Children’s Recovery Center in Horry County. The complaint alleges the dossier was compiled by the Rankin campaign and distributed to media organizations throughout the state on June 2, 2020.
The forensic interview was conducted with Gallman’s 10-year-old daughter. The records of the interview are statutorily protected and confidential pursuant to S.C. Code § 19-11-95, S.C. Code § 44-22-100, and S.C. Code § 62-11-310.
Nevertheless, quotes taken directly from the divorce proceedings and the forensic interview notes appeared in a June 16, 2020 article published by MyHorryNews.com, alleging abuse by Gallman against his former wife and child, according to the complaint.
On the same day, June 16, 2020, a 30 second advertisement entitled LRLindsayFinal was delivered to WMBF. According to an exhibit filed with the complaint, the advertisement included a quote from the MyHorryNews.com article alleging domestic abuse by Gallman.
The NAB Form PB-18, submitted to the station for a non-candidate issue advertisement, was signed by Julie Emerson the founding member of Lagniappe Communications Group LLC, a Louisiana registered limited liability corporation.
The PB-18 form is dated June 16, 2020. However, by Emerson’s printed name in the signature block, it is stated the form was digitally signed by Julie Emerson at 12:21 on June 15, 2020, one day before the MyHorryNews.com article was published. The PB-18 states the advertisement was paid for by the “South Carolina Industry Project, a project of the American Industry Project, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, No. 3009, Washington, D.C.”
How was it that a communications group located in Louisiana knew to purchase advertising time with a Horry County television station for an advertisement, paid for by a non-issue PAC located in Washington, D.C., referencing an article about a local senate race candidate one day before the article was published?
According to a Form 990 filing with the IRS for tax year 2018, Horry County Council member Tyler
Servant is the President of the American Industry Project. Servant may find himself in trouble with the state ethics commission for the ads and flyers paid for by the S.C. Industry Project as he is listed as president.
S.C. Code 8-13-1340 states in part, “…a candidate or public official shall not make a contribution to another candidate or make an independent expenditure on behalf of another candidate or public official from the candidate’s or public official’s campaign account or through a committee, except legislative caucus committees, directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained, or controlled by the candidate or public official.
According to the S.C. Secretary of State website, neither the S.C. Industry Project nor the American Industry Project is registered to do business in the state of South Carolina.
The S.C. Industry Project paid for a second television advertisement run on WBTW. Again, Julie Emerson signed the PB-18 form digitally. The ad was entitled “SC Industry 911 Call”, which was a spot of a fake 911 call which includes reference to the forensic interview and the statement, “John Gallman, Unfit to Represent our Values.”
In addition, the S.C. Industry Project paid for several mailers which, according to the complaint, promoted the same messages about Gallman.
Why was a non-issue PAC located in Washington, D.C. so interested in spending in the neighborhood of $100,000 on television advertisements and mailers promoting defamatory information about one candidate in this relatively minor state senate election?
The final order from the Family Court concerning child custody states in part, “…no actual data to confirm any type of abuse against either parent” and “there was no verifiable data of domestic abuse by one party against the other, or child abuse.”
One other gathering of note alleging domestic abuse by Gallman, promoted as “Women Opposing John Gallman”, was held in the parking lot of Coastal Law the Friday before the runoff election. Coastal Law is the law firm with which Rep. Russell Fry is associated.
According to news reports, former Rep. Alan Clemmons addressed the group reportedly including the statement, “In my world, those that tell lies cannot be trusted.” This is the same Alan Clemmons who asked Republican voters to nominate him for another term in the S.C. House of Representatives only to turn around a few weeks after this rally and resign from the House just weeks after winning the primary nomination.
Fry and Clemmons are not currently named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Gallman was never arrested, charged or convicted of domestic abuse. The final order from Family Court further confirms this fact. However, the television ads and mailers paid for by the S.C. Industry Project referencing the MyHorryNews.com article and the rally held in the Coastal Law parking lot paint a much different picture.
Running ads, sending mailers and holding rallies accusing Gallman of something he was not convicted of and is easily checked in public records doesn’t appear to be protected political speech.