Attack Ads Lead to Defamation Suit in Oklahoma

An Oklahoma fire chief who opted to retire in the face of relentless personal attacks by a self-appointed public interest group has filed a defamation action against the men he believes are responsible.

Fire Chief Dale Parrish retired last summer from the Skiatook Fire Department after being subjected to withering criticism by the group Skiatook Citizens for a Better Government. The attacks included newspaper ads proclaiming “The Fire Chief takes our Gold and gives us the Shaft. The Fire Chief Takes Much but Gives Little. The Fire Chief is known as the ‘Bully’. His Employees are Silent and Afraid to Speak. Heart attacks can Wait. The Fire Chief has more Important Matters. Mercy Ambulance Is Available.”

In his retirement letter Chief Parrish stated he was leaving due to the “toxic environment that has been established over the past several months, from influences outside the department… I had hoped to complete another ten years with the Town but feel this is not possible due to the current environment.”

Chief Parrish filed the action in Osage County District Court. The four defendants in the case, Victor Waters, Horace Paslay, Evert Hendrix and Billy Barnes, are also defendants in another case filed by former Skiatook town coordinator, Martin Tucker. Tucker was himself subjected to the group’s scorn and attack ads and sued for defamation.

The case raises several troubling questions in my mind: to what extent does the First Amendment require a public official to accept personal attacks without recourse? To some extent those in the public’s eye have to develop thick skin… but just how thick?

Skiatook’s Mayor Josh Brown referred to the folks who launched the ad campaign as an “impossible group.” I think we can all relate. Do fire chiefs have to put up with malicious lies, sneaky half-truths, and vicious character assassinations as part of the job? Was that what the framers of the Constitution intended or envisioned when the wrote they First Amendment?

The next question: why would any sane person willingly subject themselves and their family to this type of non-sense – where any imbecile can with impunity allege virtually anything … assassinate your character and impugn your integrity just for the demented sport of it. I go back to my good friend Dennis Rubin who continues to be attacked by folks who apparently have little better to do with their lives than viciously defame him… all the while claiming to be the victim – and doing the public good.

Dennis Rubin and Dale Parrish are not alone by any stretch. There are fire chiefs from departments large and small, career and volunteer, who find themselves the victims of such attacks. Whether the attackers believe they are fighting some noble battle against the forces of evil, are avenging some perceived wrong, or are mentally ill, these sorts of people are out there.

If the first two questions do not concern you, this one should: who will lead our public agencies… and our government in the future…. if these kinds of attacks can take place under the cover of the First Amendment without any recourse? The digital age offers the attackers an inexpensive forum and a near unlimited audience for their non-sense.  If a sane person would be dissuaded from seeking such positions because of the ruthless attacks… well, the question begs the answer. What motivation could possibly be enough for the abuse they have to endure? It can’t be money… is it power, ego… that would make the job worth the cost of the abuse??? A sad commentary…

That leaves us with the question… who would willing put up with the abuse that Chief Parrish had to deal with in order to be a fire chief… be it Washington DC, or Skiatook, Oklahoma.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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