ORLANDO – Calling the verdict “disappointing but not surprising,” radio talk show host Doug Guetzloe said he would appeal a jury’s decision to side with Winter Garden businessman Richard Mask in the defamation lawsuit decided today.
Guetzloe said his attorney, Fred O’Neal, would ask a higher court to overturn the jury’s decision that Guetzloe had defamed Mask, and their decision to award him more than $1.4 million in damages.
“Mr. O’Neal will be filing several motions within the next several days,” Guetzloe said, including “a motion for re-hearing, a motion for new trial, a motion to set aside the judgment amounts and following these, an appeal to the 5th District Court of Appeal where Mr. O’Neal is certain the court will overturn this ridiculous verdict.”
This lawsuit, Guetzloe said, remains about his free speech rights more than anything else.
“The battle for the First Amendment continues,” Guetzloe said. “The cause endures and the effort to restore constitutional law to the Republic moves forward.”
Mask had filed a lawsuit claiming that Guetzloe accused him of being a pedophile during a Jan. 10 2006 segment of Guetzloe’s radio program, The Guetzloe Report.
“We’re very pleased with the verdict,” said Mask’s attorney, Howard Marks. “We’ve always attempted to clear Mr. Mask’s name and that’s what we’ve done.”
During the trial, Guetzloe and O’Neal argued that his comments on the radio show had been taken out on context, and that the case was about political retribution for Guetzloe’s involvement in a political battle to save a mobile home park called Trailer City from being closed down and sold to developers.
Mask is a former member of the Winter Garden Zoning Board who had applied to the governor’s office to be appointed to a vacant seat on the city’s board of commissioners after the incumbent was removed from office in a recall election that Guetzloe had spearheaded. Guetzloe had questioned why Mask was seen in Trailer City talking to some young boys, and said his comments were intended to raise questions about whether Mask had been looking for code violations in a park slated for adults 55 and older.
Mask, though, denied during the trial that he’d been looking for code violations in the park, and insisted he had not taken a position on whether the park should be closed.
If he had been talking to young boys in Trailer City, Mask testified, it was because his son liked to play there with friends.
During the trial, Marks asked his client why he had gotten so offended when Guetzloe questioned why he was trolling for young boys in Trailer City. Mask responded, “Well, about 52 years ago, I was on the other end of that. I know what a pedophile does.”
He also testified that he had not told his wife about the abuse until a week ago.
“Unless you’ve ever been in a situation of a young child being victimized by a pedophile, it’s one of the worst things in the world to be accused of being one,” Mask said.
The jurors sided with Mask on the defamation case, and also with a lawsuit he filed against Guetzloe for abuse of process and malicious prosecution. Guetzloe had filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Mask and two others for taping his radio program. That lawsuit was later dismissed, and Marks had argued that the lawsuit was filed simply to intimidate Mask into dropping his defamation case.
Marks said the jury also didn’t accept Guetzloe’s argument that this case was about political retribution.
“The jury didn’t buy that,” he said. “You simply can’t do that unless you have concrete evidence.”
Marks added that it was really a simple case of defamation and that the political stuff was a smokescreen.
“Instead of just apologizing and saying he made a mistake, he refused to do that,” Marks said. “The jury found this man had no remorse.”
After the verdict, Guetzloe said it would not change how he operates as a radio commentator.
“I can tell you that nothing that occurred today will deter me from speaking out on the issues that face us as taxpayers in Central Florida, the state and the nation,” he said.
He also continued to insist that the case was about politics, not defamation.
“Mr. Mask alleged that I had defamed him by certain comments I made on my radio show over five years ago during the battle to save Trailer City,” Guetzloe said. “We were victorious in that battle with our successful re-call of Commissioner Bill Thompson, our successful election of Commissioner Carol Nichols, the successful re-election of Commissioner Theo Graham, the removal of city manager Hollis Holden, the removal of city attorney Lionel Rubio and the successful appointment of Rod Reynolds to the vacant city commission seat formally held by the recalled former commissioner Thompson. The attempt to remove these people from their homes and allow developers to develop the park were permanently thwarted.”
Guetzloe said he had reason to believe the verdict would not hold up under appeal, in part because of a decision made by the judge, Jose R. Rodriguez, to instruct a court officer to remove Guetzloe’s wife and son from the courtroom.
“The judge and the jury made numerous legal errors during the trial and Judge Rodriguez continually and consistently refused to allow our evidence into the trial for the jury to hear,” he said. “Judge Rodriguez also ordered my wife and one of my sons from the courtroom for no reason whatsoever – this action was taken within five minutes of my wife and son entering the courtroom for the first time, also after allowing Mrs. Mask to attend for the entire eight days. Extreme bias was evident throughout the trial.”
Marks took issue with those statement. He noted that he has a background in free speech cases as an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, and said O’Neal would have a difficult time finding legal errors to exploit in an appeal.
“I’m a big supporter of free speech,” Marks said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time you’re allowed to say whatever you want. But there are certain words and certain comments that you simply can’t make. This is not a First Amendment case.”
As for the appeal, Marks said, “I don’t think there’s anything appealable. I don’t know of any errors that were committed here. The judge was very fair to all sides.”
Guetzloe, though, remained defiant, saying this is just the second round in a ten round battle.
“The jury verdict will be appealed,” he said. “The First Amendment protects this kind of speech. This is an assault on the First Amendment as much as an assault on me personally. It was purely political vindictiveness and the jury went along with it, but it doesn’t really have any effect on me.”
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