The price for libel in Belfair – $25,000May 15th, 2009 by Steven Gardner
In 2006 Bob Harris, the former owner of a small grocery store and frequent critic of the local weekly, took a photograph of the editor of that paper and pasted it onto a copy of a sex offender notice.
Harris then made copies and posted them on businesses around Belfair and in Allyn. Initially he denied being the culprit. That he was suspected wasn’t a surprise, because he had previously printed signs with the phrase “No Moore Bad News” and posted them around town. The “Moore” in question was Belfair Herald Editor Kevan Moore.
Harris had also used his store’s readerboard and the Herald’s letters section to blast Moore and the paper.
Harris did not fess up to posting the flyers until he saw bank security photos of him doing just that. Then he started making apologies around town.
The poster was a warning for a Level 3 offender who had failed to register, was considered a high risk to reoffend and whose whereabouts were unknown. Instead of the offender’s photo, however, there was the photo of Moore. The incident occurred about a year after two sex offenders had been murdered in Bellingham, so locals in Mason County thought the poster dangerous for Moore.
Moore, according to a story in the Washington Newspaper, sued civilly. The Washington Newspaper is published by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington.
Moore was awarded $25,000, of which $15,000 was for compensatory damages. He had asked for $150,000. Moore, according to the story, said the judgment was the equivalent of the judge telling Harris his libel was “no big deal.”
“If Judge Finlay’s ruling is truly representative of this community’s attitude and stance towards the behavior that Mr. Harris engaged in, then I am clearly out of touch with this place that I have been living in and covering as a reporter for almost a decade,” Moore said in his statement.
The incident happened at a time when North Mason County seemed particularly given to ugly politics. Bill Eickmeyer’s race against Randy Neatherlin for state representative in 2006 had nastiness coming from supporters, often anonymous, on both sides. The school board’s relationship with its superintendent was contentious.
In 2008 the state representative campaign went on fairly well mannered. Neatherlin ran again, this time against Fred Finn. About the ugliest thing to happen was Neatherlin getting Rickrolled online. That’s when you go to a site you think is for one thing, and then you get Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” video. During the campaign it had anti-Neatherlin stuff. Now it has a picture of Che Guevarra. Pretty mild by Belfair 2006 standards.