Auon’tai Anderson defamation claims allowed to proceed | Courts | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

Colorado’s second-highest court on Thursday agreed Denver Public Schools board member Auon’tai M. Anderson may pursue defamation claims against two women who posted unsubstantiated allegations online that he committed sexual assault.

Anderson, who is vice president of DPS’ board of education, originally filed suit against Black Lives Matter 5280 and three individuals who played a role in disseminating unproven allegations of Anderson’s misconduct. Specifically, the defendants made a series of inflammatory statements suggesting Anderson sexually assaulted multiple women and victimized more than 60 high school students.

An independent investigation DPS commissioned in 2021 found Anderson did appear to make unwelcome or inappropriate sexual comments, but could not substantiate the assault claims.

Based in part on the investigation’s findings and the statements of the defendants, a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals concluded Anderson had viable defamation claims against two people who accused him of criminal conduct: Jeeva Senthilnathan and Mary Katherine Brooks-Fleming.

Anderson was elected to the board as an at-large member in 2019. He is not seeking reelection this year, and is instead campaigning to succeed term-limited Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, in the legislature.

The defamation claims triggered scrutiny under Colorado’s relatively new “anti-SLAPP” law, which stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” The same year as Anderson’s election, the legislature enacted the law to provide a mechanism to quickly dispose of litigation that implicates a person’s First Amendment rights — specifically, the rights to free speech and to petition the government.

To date, the Court of Appeals has sided with dissatisfied customers sued over their negative online reviews of businesses, a woman who spoke out about domestic violence on social media and a Planned Parenthood executive who criticized a series of misleading videos about fetal tissue donation.

In early 2021, Black Lives Matter 5280 posted a statement on its social media pages describing an unnamed woman who came forward alleging Anderson “is the perpetrator of her sexual assault.” 

“Bear in mind that although these allegations have not gone through a formal legal process, BLM 5280 is fiercely committed to protecting, uplifting, and believing Black women, decidedly as it relates to sexual violence,” the statement continued.

The DPS board quickly hired an independent investigation firm to look at the allegations. Within weeks, however, Brooks-Fleming went before the legislature to testify about a bill to aid survivors of child sexual abuse. Without naming Anderson, Brooks-Fleming alleged 62 students “reported directly to me” about a “sexual predator currently targeting DPS students.” She added that she personally spoke with the victims, who had experienced “unwanted touching” and “violent acts of rape” from the alleged perpetrator.

Finally, after the release of the investigation’s findings, Senthilanthan, a political activist and former candidate for Parker Town Council, posted a statement of her own alleging there are “more victims” of Anderson’s and “he has sexually assaulted many women.”

After Anderson filed suit, the defendants moved to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP law. Denver District Court Judge David H. Goldberg largely sided with them.

As for BLM 5280 and one of its board members, Amy Brown, Goldberg found their act of conveying the alleged victim’s accusations did not support a defamation claim. He observed that Brooks-Fleming’s statements to the legislature, and a subsequent online post where she doubled down on her allegations, came before the investigation’s conclusion. Consequently, Anderson had not shown Brooks-Fleming had grounds to believe she was speaking falsely at the time.

Goldberg did, however, find Anderson could proceed against Senthilnathan for her online post.

“Senthilnathan acknowledges that the sexual assault allegations against plaintiff were unsubstantiated but she proceeds to state that plaintiff sexually assaulted women,” he noted.

On appeal, Anderson argued the anti-SLAPP law should not be used as a “how-to-guide on engineering the most fantastical and salacious of claims” without accountability. The defendants regarded Anderson as a “political rival or enemy” and intentionally lied to destroy his name, wrote attorney Issa Israel.

The appellate panel endorsed much, but not all, of Goldberg’s reasoning. It agreed the BLM 5280 statement was not asserting as a fact that Anderson assaulted his unnamed accuser.

“That statement faithfully uses the words ‘alleged’ or ‘allegedly’ to describe the reporting party and her allegations,” wrote Judge Katharine E. Lum in the Sept. 28 opinion.

The panel also agreed Brooks-Fleming could not be held liable for her testimony to the legislature. But her subsequent statement online, in which she doubled down on her allegations, could support a defamation claim. Lum noted the investigation found Brooks-Fleming to not be credible, and there was reason to doubt her allegations at the time of her testimony.

In reinstating Anderson’s claim against Brooks-Fleming, the panel found Goldberg correctly denied Senthilnathan’s motion to dismiss as well.

While Senthilnathan stated factually that Anderson had committed assaults, “there isn’t any evidence in the record suggesting that she actually received reports of sexual assault or that the assaults in fact took place,” Lum noted.

An attorney for Brown and BLM 5280 declined to comment. Senthilnathan could not be reached. Anderson’s lawyer did not immediately provide a reaction to the appellate ruling.

The case is Anderson v. Senthilnathan et al.

Denver Gazette reporter Nicole C. Brambila contributed to this story.

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