FIRST AMENDMENT NEWS: Mendoza Defamation and False Light Appeal Dropped - New Mexico Press Association
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FIRST AMENDMENT NEWS: Mendoza Defamation and False Light Appeal Dropped

Former Mayor Harry Mendoza dropped his appeal of the final dismissal of his defamation and “false light” lawsuit against The Galluip Independent and Bob Zollinger, the publisher of the paper. Mendoza who eventually pleaded “no contest” to a criminal charge of public affray based on a physical confrontation with Zollingerin in 2010, filed the lawsuit shortly after the confrontation with Zollinger in a Gallup bank parking lot.

Mendoza claimed he had been defamed and held in a “false light” due to publications in The Gallup Independent . The publications repeatedly referred to 1948 and1949 public records and news accounts which stated Mendoza’s involvement in the gang rape of a young Native American Zuni woman. Editorials named Mendoza as a “gang rapist” with the knowledge he was arrested and charged but never tried or convicted. A contemporaneous news report stated he avoided trial by joining the Army. Before trial, District Court Judge Louis DePauli dismissed the defamation claims based upon First Amendment protections for speech and free press.

The trial of the “false light” claims ended in a mistrial. The jury initially found some of the statements that Mendoza was a gang rapist were not false or were Constitutionally protected opinions. When four of the six jurors found that the plaintiffs had not established that any of the remaining, claimed false light statements were published with knowledge that the statements were false, a mistrial was eventually declared. In post trial motions, the District Court Judge dismissed the false light claims, on the basis of First Amendment rights and concerns: the Mayor was a public figure and the charges were public and a matter of public interest.

This lawsuit by former Mayor Mendoza is the second defamation lawsuit he has filed against The Gallup Independent. The first lawsuit ended in 1988 after the defamation charges were dismissed by the NM Court of Appeals (Mendoza v The Gallup Independent, 107 N.M. 721 (Ct. App. 1988). In the first Mendoza and Gallup Independent defamation lawsuit, the Court of Appeals recognized the First Amendment right to publish satire and opinions.

Although Mendoza filed the initial documents to appeal the dismissal of his most recent defamation and false light lawsuit, Mendoza agreed to abandon the appeal in exchange for the newspaper’s agreement not to pursue court costs against him. Mendoza was represented by Sam Bregman, Marty Esquivel and Eric Loman. The Gallup Independent and Bob Zollinger were represented by Pat Rogers, George McFall, Lorena Olmos and Sarah Stevenson.

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