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Brian Blair loses this bare knuckles fight

Brian Blair's libel lawsuit against the man who beat him at the ballot box in 2008 wasn't the biggest sour grapes story ever. But it matters, particularly if you care about keeping candidates from being cowed.

The ex-wrestler lost in a bare knuckles campaign against Kevin Beckner, a newcomer whose politics could not have been more different than Blair's had he just arrived from the moon.

Also notable: This was the race where (only in Tampa) the openly gay candidate bested the former professional wrestler.

I bring up this detail about Beckner only because I have always wondered if it added insult to injury for the man who once double drop-kicked opponents (or whatever it is wrestlers do) as a ferocious "Killer Bee."

But no, after the votes were counted, Blair did not come out to shake hands and say the best man won. If you had followed his over-the-top commission tenure, this did not surprise you.

Instead he sued, claiming Beckner made untrue allegations about his record in campaign ads and mailers and exposed him to "hatred, contempt" and "ridicule." Blair's detractors might have argued a different source, but this would be for a judge to decide.

Naturally, Blair had to go beyond legalese and right over the top, even by Blair standards, making us wince with his own analysis: "Can I say that (Beckner's) boyfriend gave him AIDS?" he told a reporter. "I don't know." He went on to say he didn't know that to be true and wouldn't say if he did.

Brian Blair, keepin' it classy.

His lawsuit claimed Beckner's campaign falsely characterized issues such as using taxpayer money for cleaning up lakes (including one behind his house), a pay raise and flying the Confederate flag.

In some cases it appeared to come down to words put together for voter consumption: Is opposing a salary freeze giving yourself a pay raise?

The Beckner campaign contended these were "rational interpretations" from published newspaper reports. He also cites the commission's own transcripts and minutes.

And for awhile there, those of us who like the idea of a free and robust exchange when it comes to our political contests worried just a little.

This week, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Bernard Silver found no evidence Beckner acted recklessly regarding Blair, a public figure. He noted in his order that the parsing of words in political debate is subject to "rational interpretations."

"The freedom of exchange of ideas on divisive political issues is the cornerstone of our democracy, and constitutes speech that is guaranteed by the First Amendment," his order said. "The courts have protected fair comment in political debate." And this is a good thing.

Beckner has gone on to make a name for himself on the County Commission. Blair, meanwhile, is running for a state House seat, where maybe he can take the judge's words to heart. His lawyer Chris Rodems — who correctly points out the judge did not specifically rule on the truth of Beckner's statements — said it is too early to say if they will appeal.

But here's hoping this one ends here, with a ruling in favor of vigorous debate in political races. We could even call it the No Sour Grapes Case.

Brian Blair loses this bare knuckles fight 07/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 8:05pm]
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