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Judge dismisses state lawmaker’s defamation suit

OMAHA, Neb. — A judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by a Nebraska lawmaker against a conservative political action committee that labeled her a child "groomer" and sexual abuser in online posts, citing the constitutional right to free speech. State Sen. Megan Hunt sued the Nebraska Freedom Coalition and three of its officers after they repeatedly targeted her in social media posts, even suggesting she had sexually abused her own child. The attacks came as Democratic lawmakers, like Hunt, and conservative lawmakers in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature clashed over a Republican-backed bill to ban gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 19. The judge threw out the lawsuit on Wednesday before it could be heard by a jury, and dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it can't be refiled. Douglas County District Judge Todd Engleman's ruling said the Nebraska Freedom Coalition's "hyperbolic language" in the posts showed that the accusations were statements of opinion rather than fact, making them protected speech under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. The PAC, which routinely posts profane material on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, began targeting Hunt in tweets in March after Hunt publicly shared in a legislative floor speech that her 13-year-old child is transgender. She called the bill an affront to her and other parents caring for transgender teens. Nebraska Freedom Coalition not only attacked Hunt, but also posted images of Hunt's child. In her lawsuit, which sought an unspecified amount in damages and legal costs, Hunt said the group's posts led others to join in on the online harassment. Hunt said she was called a "groomer" on Twitter "no fewer than 231 times." She also received dozens of harassing calls and emails; some threatened her with physical harm. The judge cited a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed "debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open" in his dismissal of the lawsuit, noting that such debate often includes "vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks" on public officials. "Because of this country's profound commitment to freedom of speech, the statements at issue are not actionable as a matter of law," Engleman wrote. Hunt's attorney and former colleague in the Legislature, Adam Morfeld, said he and Hunt were surprised by the ruling and are considering an appeal. "No mother, regardless of whether they are an elected official or not, should be accused of abusing their child when there is absolutely no basis in fact, and then receive physical threats," Morfeld said. The Nebraska Freedom Coalition issued a statement on social media lauding the dismissal as win for free speech. "This victory underscores the pivotal role played by organizations like NFC in safeguarding the rights of citizens to engage in political discourse without fear of retribution," the statement said. The Nebraska bill at the center of the controversy was later amended and passed on a single vote. It bans gender-confirming surgery for anyone under 19 and restricts the use of hormone treatments and puberty blockers in minors. That bill also folded in a 12-week abortion ban. At least 22 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, and most of those states face lawsuits. An Arkansas ban that mirrors Nebraska's was struck down by a federal judge in June as unconstitutional and will be appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court — which also oversees Nebraska cases.

5th Circuit blocks Louisiana redistricting hearings

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge's plan to hold hearings next week to draw up congressional boundary lines giving Louisiana a second majority-Black district was blocked Thursday by a divided appeals court panel. Supporters of establishing a second such district had hoped a recent Supreme Court ruling upholding a redrawn map in Alabama would soon result in similar results in Louisiana. But in a 2-1 ruling, a panel of judges at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Baton Rouge-based U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick was moving too quickly and must give the state more time to consider a new map. Dick had issued an injunction last year blocking a map that had been drawn up by the Legislature, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act. But the map was used in the 2022 elections after the Supreme Court put the Louisiana case on hold, pending the outcome of the Alabama case. Writing for the majority in Thursday's appellate ruling, Judge Edith Jones said Dick had set an "impossibly short timetable" last year for lawmakers to draw new maps. Now, she said, "there is no warrant for the court's rushed remedial hearing by the first week of October 2023, months in advance of deadlines for districting, candidate filing, and all the minutiae of the 2024 elections." Judge James Ho, nominated to the court by former President Donald Trump, concurred with Jones, a nominee of former President Ronald Reagan. Judge Stephen Higginson, nominated by former President Barack Obama, dissented, noting that the issues has been before the courts for over a year. Louisiana has six U.S. House districts. Five are currently represented by white Republicans and one by a Black Democrat. The Legislature met last year to adjust congressional district boundaries to account for population shifts reflected in the last census. The maps passed by the Republican-dominated body included only one mostly Black district and were passed over the objection of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who agreed with voting rights advocates who said a second majority-Black district is needed in a state where the population is roughly one-third Black. Another panel of the 5th Circuit is scheduled to hear arguments next week on the injunction Dick issued last year that blocked the use of the 2022 map.