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Settlement a victory for free speech

Brian Addison has settled his lawsuit against Baker City and former Police Chief Wyn Lohner, and the agreement, which includes a $155,000 payment to Addison, is a victory for him and for every citizen’s constitutional right to criticize the government without fear of reprisal.

Never mind that the agreement includes the predictable legalese about how neither the city nor Lohner admits “liability or wrongdoing.”

Or City Manager Fred Warner Jr.’s statement that “the insurance company just decided to settle. They thought the cost of going to court was more than what they paid out.”

Or Lohner’s contention that “it’s always disappointing when the truth doesn’t prevail.”

Both Lohner and Warner had to sign the agreement to make it official.

Addison received $155,000 because he complained about a series of incidents involving the Baker City Police Department after he wrote an editorial, published in the Record-Courier newspaper (a weekly paper no longer being published) in 2008, contending that the department had violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on illegal searches. Addison’s editorial was based on officers using the department’s drug-detecting dog at Baker High School during the Class 1A state basketball tournament.

Although the lawsuit did not go to trial, based on depositions and other records it appeared that Addison had compiled compelling evidence that after his editorial was published, he was subject to traffic stops at an unusually high rate. He also lost his job in Baker City after Lohner had a conversation with his employer.

Multiple federal judges found Addison’s case sufficient to justify a trial.

District Judge Michael Simon, in denying Lohner’s motion claiming that his discussions with two of Addison’s employers were also protected under the First Amendment, determined that Lohner had “engaged in a campaign of harassment over a period of years against Addison.”

Lohner appealed Simon’s decision, but a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. The Appeals Court judges wrote that although Lohner and other public employees also enjoy First Amendment protection, “this constitutional protection does not give them license to engage in a ‘campaign of harassment and humiliation’ against another person in response to that person’s exercise of the right to speak.”

Lohner contends that in conversations with Addison’s employers he said he was concerned that Addison was potentially violent, and that, as police chief, it was his duty to worry about public safety.

This is not a persuasive argument. And it’s not likely that the jury that would have heard evidence at a trial would have found it compelling either.

What does seem likely is that the evidence would have refuted any reasonable belief that the timing of Addison’s interactions with the Baker City Police Department and his loss of a job — happening after he wrote an editorial suggesting the department had violated citizens’ constitutional violations — was nothing more than a series of coincidences.

Addison’s lawsuit, and its conclusion, should serve as a reminder that each of us has the sacred right, enshrined in one of America’s foundational documents, to express our opinions with the expectation that we won’t be subject, solely as a result, to punitive action by our government.