A case involving a Connecticut family that was successfully sued for defamationfor putting up posters in public places asking for any information about their missing son was considered on appeal by Connecticut’s Supreme Court on Nov. 20.
The family’s torturous route through the state’s justice system was navigated pro bono by Catholic University law school alumna Anne McKenna (left) 1994, a partner with The Internet and Privacy Law Practice Group of Silverman|Thompson|Slutkin|White|LLC in Baltimore, along with her colleague Steve Kelly, a nationally-recognized victims’ rights advocate. Because of the importance of the First Amendment issues in the case, McKenna and Kelly agreed to accept the appeal case pro bono mere weeks before the appellate brief was due.
Catholic University law school students chipped in as well. Late last spring, faced with only two weeks to research and brief the appeal, McKenna approached law school faculty members asking for student assistance with research, pitching it as a chance to work on a significant First Amendment case.
“Because of the complexity of the issues, the parents' need for help with the case, and the media coverage that has surrounded this case for years, it would make for an excellent project for some CUA legal clinic students and recent grads to work on,” McKenna said.
Her call was answered by 3L Michelle Lease (left), Laura Kakuk, 2011, and Emily Newman, 2012, who dug into factual research and helped to provide the pro bono team with ammunition for its appellate brief. Lease had previously served as a law clerk in McKenna’s firm.
“Anne described the case to me and it was instantly very compelling. It was terrible that the Smolinskis, the true victims in this case, were told by a court they had done something wrong,” said Lease.
The case is an unusual one. A 31-year old man, Billy Smolinski (below left) went missing in Connecticut in 2004. At the time, police suspected he may have been murdered as part of a love-triangle turned lethal.
Frantic, Billy's parents placed “missing person” posters in public places in several nearby towns. Some were on display along the school bus route driven by Smolinski’s then-girlfriend, who was initially considered a suspect, although not named as such in any of the posters.
The girlfriend began defacing the posters and ripping some down while in the course of driving the county's school bus. But police refused to stop the girlfriend who, it turns out, had been having a sexual affair with a prominent, married, local Connecticut politician at the same time she was dating Billy.
The Smolinskis surreptitiously filmed her actions and gave the tape to a local news station, which aired the footage. The girlfriend then retained an attorney and sued the TV station and Billy's mother and sister for defamation.
The action against the broadcast station was dismissed, but according to a press release put out by McKenna and Kelly, a series of questionable evidentiary rulings in a bench trial and the trial court’s failure to consider the First Amendment led to the judge awarding more than $52,000 in a defamation verdict against Billy's mother and Billy’s younger sister.
“Missing person posters can help victims’ families obtain tips, which often assist police in their investigations to find and protect the child or loved one,” McKenna noted. “But if one court’s judgment is allowed to stand, these posters can also make the families liable for tens of thousands of dollars.”
McKenna says unless overturned on appeal, the defamation verdict “sets a disturbing precedent for stifling First Amendment speech.”
“Because of my interest in First Amendment issues, this was also an exciting case to work on,” Lease summed up. “It was an added bonus that I was contributing to a case that could make a difference in the lives of the Smolinskis.”