In a victory not just for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs — but for First Amendment threats across the nation — an Oklahoma court has dismissed a defamation lawsuit by Paycom and its billionaire founder against OCPA.
In dismissing the suit — with prejudice — Oklahoma District Court Judge Thomas E. Prince ruled the claims made by Paycom could neither prove specific damages, nor had OCPA acted with actual malice, and ruled that the suit was “meritless.”
Dismissing a case with prejudice simply means that it cannot be refiled and that it is a final judgment; it can be appealed, however, which Paycom has already done. “Actual malice” is a legal term in libel and defamation cases, meaning that the entity being sued “knew,” or “acted with reckless disregard” as to whether or not the statements at issue were false. Neither was true in this case.
As Sentinel coverage from last June explains, the suit focused on OCPA’s coverage of a letter sent by Chad Richison in his capacity as Paycom CEO to Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on March 22 of last year, in which Richison laid out a plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the state
On March 23, 2020, Ray Carter, director of the Center for Independent Journalism at the OCPA, mentioned Richison’s letter in a post about Stitt’s response to COVID-19.
“Some individuals have called for Stitt to order most businesses to close and have the government control how others operate, including grocery stores. Chad Richison, CEO of Paycom, is among those who have advocated such actions,” Carter wrote.
In response, Paycom filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court alleging that OCPA falsely stated Richison’s position on business closures.
OCPA President Jonathan Small denies the claim, and his comments in a Center Square piece indicate they’ve had other policy disputes with Richison over the years.
“OCPA and Chad Richison have engaged in public-policy debates. Sometimes our views align, sometimes they do not. Today, Chad Richison continues to exercise his First Amendment rights; it’s a shame he does not respect the First Amendment rights of others,” Small said.
“In recent months, Richison, a billionaire, advocated for closure of many businesses while OCPA argued for preserving citizens’ ability to get the medical care they need and earn a living to provide for their families, especially since society’s most vulnerable are hardest hit by these business closures,” Small said.
The problem for the judge is that neither Paycom nor OCPA disputed the things that Richison wrote.
“… there are no disputed facts concerning the facts of the publication by OCPA, the letters by Paycom, that preceded the OCPA publication or the content of those writings,” the judge wrote in the order. “In other words, none of the facts in the context of those events have been contested by the Parties. The Court, therefore, finds that … Paycom’s claims against OCPA relate to or are in response to the OCPA’s exercise of the right of free speech.”
Paycom’s lawsuit alleged they had lost clients as a result of OCPA’s reporting of Richison’s public writings.
However, Prince found that, while Paycom could show a year over year loss, they were unable to prove that was directly related to OCPA’s writings. Paycom also could not point to any specific client who had refused to sign with the company as a result of the article.
“If Paycom has lost clients, it is not because OCPA truthfully reported on Richison’s public support and public advocacy for business shutdowns (including through a direct link to Richison’s public letter), but because of the economic consequences of governments following policies similar to those Richison endorsed,” Small said at the time.
In a press release, Small touted the victory.
“This is an important victory for all Oklahomans, for the First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press, and a crucial victory against ‘cancel culture’ in Oklahoma,” he said in the release. “Rather than accept the court’s decisive ruling, Paycom has filed an appeal in which it publicly smears the reputation of the court.
“It continues trying to cancel OCPA through harassing litigation in the courtroom rather than engage in the battle of ideas in public. OCPA will not back down, and we appreciate working with all citizens who share our mission and oppose the dictatorial forces of those opposed to the right to free speech.”