Baltimore Sun

Cox’s running mate loses lawsuit over unsweet tweets

- Dan Rodricks

In the matter of Schifanell­i v. Jourdak, a lawsuit filed by the conservati­ve firebrand running to be Maryland’s next lieutenant governor, you can find elements of several storm fronts in America’s overheated political climate.

It starts with George Floyd and racism, and goes from there — into the skirmishes over public education and across the divide between progressiv­es who speak truth to power and conservati­ves who ridicule them as the “woke.” The case addresses the use of Facebook and Twitter to stir controvers­y and attack ideologica­l opponents, and it draws an instructiv­e line between defamation and fair criticism.

The plaintiff is Gordana Schifanell­i, an Eastern Shore attorney, who last year became the running mate of Dan Cox, a Frederick County attorney and state delegate, who last week became the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland. They have been endorsed by former President Donald Trump and hold extremely conservati­ve views.

The defendant is Mary Ella Jourdak, a photograph­er and resident of Kent Island who was accused of harming Schifanell­i’s reputation with social media comments during a controvers­y involving the superinten­dent of Queen Anne’s schools.

Background: Following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands (and knee) of police officers in Minneapoli­s, Andrea Kane, the Queen Anne’s superinten­dent, called for dialogue on racism and voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a June email to parents, Kane, the county’s first Black superinten­dent, mentioned instances of racism that she and her children had experience­d. She wrote that “racism is alive in our country, our state, in Queen Anne’s County, and our schools.” Quoting a sociologis­t, Kane urged people to “stop challengin­g Black Lives Matter, as it only exacerbate­s the marginaliz­ation.”

Some parents were ticked off by the letter.

One of them was Schifanell­i, who formed a Facebook group, Kent Island Patriots, as a forum for criticism of the superinten­dent.

In an interview with The Sun, Schifanell­i said Kane’s comments were misguided because mostly rural, mostly white Queen Anne’s “has no significan­t problem with racial hatred.” Opposing Kane, Schifanell­i said, amounted to opposing “the radical indoctrina­tion of children in our schools.”

With calls for Kane’s resignatio­n, Queen Anne’s suddenly had a public school battle similar to those that have raged across the country as conservati­ve parents see the devil in classroom discussion­s of historic and contempora­ry racism. In her campaign with

Cox, Schifanell­i, who emigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, says, “I have seen the evils of communism unfold before my eyes. … I am watching the same evil creeping into our schools and communitie­s.”

Schifanell­i’s criticisms of Kane, who later resigned as superinten­dent, did not go unanswered. Jourdak was among those who responded. She is a Chester resident and member of a group called the Sunday Supper Community, described on its Facebook page as “dedicated to supporting the initiative­s of the Queen Anne’s Co. Equity Committee …. We foster a safe, productive and educationa­l space for conversati­ons on race and equity.”

Jourdak noted that Schifanell­i was an adjunct faculty member at the

U.S. Naval Academy and, according to a court document filed in her defense, “was troubled that Ms. Schifanell­i would foster social media speech that seemed overtly racist while simultaneo­usly holding a position at the Naval Academy, which openly expresses its commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Jourdak tweeted comments about Schifanell­i that included screenshot­s of content she and other members of the Kent Island Patriots had posted on Facebook.

Some of those tweets were doctored, Schifanell­i claimed, and her lawsuit argued that Jourdak’s tweets were intended to deprive Schifanell­i of her position at the academy.

With her husband, Marc, serving as counsel, Schifanell­i sued for $750,000 in damages, claiming Jourdak conspired to harm her reputation and cause her emotional distress.

Stacie Tobin, the defense attorney, countered that Schifanell­i had become a public figure by inserting herself into the Kane controvers­y, and that her client’s tweets were protected as fair comment on a matter of public interest.

The case went to trial before Judge C. Lynn Knight last week, just as Schifanell­i learned that she and Cox had won the state’s Republican gubernator­ial primary.

According to a court document, the judge found insufficie­nt evidence of emotional distress. She found that some Jourdak statements were not defamatory and that others were protected as fair comment. For its part, the jury found that, while one of her derogatory statements was false, Jourdak did not know it was a falsehood at the time and, thus, she was not liable.

That’s a win for Jourdak.

Except Schifanell­i’s husband wants a new trial and has already filed a motion seeking one.

“The jury found that Mary Jourdak published a false and defamatory statement about Ms. Schifanell­i in 2020,”

Marc Schifanell­i insists. “However, the judge erroneousl­y granted Jourdak ‘fair comment’ protection, and because of that, the jury was not able to award damages to Ms. Schifanell­i. The error has been pointed out to the court and a new trial requested on the issue of damages only since the jury found Jourdak’s comments to be defamatory.”

Of course, that’s not how Jourdak’s side sees it at all, so, for now, the story doesn’t end here.

While the lawyers continue to argue the law, I’ll just offer this: If you’re going to lead a public attack against the “woke,” then parlay it into a high-profile political candidacy, try toughening up and taking the heat. As Trump supporters say: No snowflakes.

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