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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.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Lee Ann Parrish

    Thank you for your article. It’s refreshing to see that my husband’s case has started a conversation about the impact of such attacks on working conditions within the fire service.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Lee Ann

      It is important to know he is not alone. There are many fire chiefs and fire departments under the same sort of attack – and even more facing a less vitriolic but just as hurtful bullying campaign.

      Of course the perpetrators don’t view themselves as bullies. They envision themselves like Don Quixote… righting some wrong. Most I have had to deal with are delusional and mean spirited.

  • Mike Mitrik

    It is very sad that a small number of politically driven individuals, having absolutely no knowledge of, or accountability for, what is required to provide emergency services for an entire community, can purchase emotionally charged ads in the newspaper, using no factual data to support their reasoning, to force men of integrity aside. If newspapers continue to support this type of behavior, the safety and financial stability of the communities that they “report” to will continue to be compromised. Sometimes, taking money, over supporting logic, can lead to troubling times.

  • Jennifer Bradshaw

    As a Firefighter/Paramedic from the Department Chief Parrish retired from, it was such an honor to have been his subordinate. All of us cared about him, trusted him and never felt bullied by him. 

    The men mentioned above that are with the group of citizens for better government are STILL giving our department a bad time. They have harassed all 15 of us and are now in the process of privatizing our EMS (We're a combination dept) and taking our 15 full time line firemen back to 3. It's an awful situation. 

    Thank you so much for the article, I'm very glad someone is bringing light to OUR Chief's misfortune. 

  • HOOKMAN

    Curt…I know we’ve had a few discussions regarding your friend Dennis…however, I ask you….If that someone who doesn’t have anything better to do (which most of the time they do) speaks the truth about an individual and can back his smack with documented evidence…is that person really being defamed ? ….Because that person in your eyes is 8-0 in civil complaints (though he actually is just named & his employer is actually the one getting sued), does this make him squeaky clean. I know under his former employer (the one he resigned from TWICE), he makes himself out to be the saint compared to his predecessor and continues to promote himself as such…..He fools mamy but sadly…he dooesn’t and never has fooled me….he was subjected and deserving of what came and continues to come his way…he’s a self serving arrogant individual and if it benefits him….then he’s all in….the dog n pony show with the troops is just that….your friend has been out for himself since day 1…If he’s such a great person and fire chief….then explain why even the smallest department he’s put his name in fod FC..has passed him over…..Is it a coincidence Curt or just bad luck….Unfortunately, the same person you call a friend and a victim of unwanted critism, is once again going to be back in court…I suppose he’ll play victim again..then you can write another article about people who have nothing better to do and how they picked on your friend….I know im an outsider and not worthy of being believable…but if you want to sit down oneday I’ll dispute EVERY single thing your friend has ever tried to cover up to protect his name, rather than own up to his own wrongdoings…

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Hookman

      The truth get's you past a defamation claim 100% of the time. (Note – it has to be the truth, not just your version of what you believe the truth to be, but the truth).

      When the target is a public figure, truth is not even required but you cannot be intentionally or recklessly false with the information you put out there. That means if you know the truth is A, but you say you know for a fact the truth is B in order to make someone look bad, you would have no protection in a defamation action.

      Also – keep in mind, if you say six things that could be defamatory, A, B, C, D, E, and F,  and everything is true except D… it is stilll defamation. The speaker has the obligation to be right and not vice versa.

      But that is defamation… and defamation is not the only issue to be concerned with.

      You do not have the right to harass anyone. You do not have the right to stalk, pursue or threaten anyone. You do not have the right to invade somone's privacy, or cast them in a false light. You do not have the right to intentionally inflict severe emotional distress upon another. You do not have the right to maliciously interfere with another person's business opportunities. I am not accusing you of any of these things – I am merely trying to answer the questions raised in your post.

      There is a limit to what the First Amendment will protect you from. It seems to me you are intent on exploring that boundary. Bon voyage!!! Its good for business!!!! I would appreciate it if you keep us all informed about how you make out.

      FYI – I believe Chief Rubin is 11-0 right now. And trust me, if you make him 11-1, I will give that ruling the full attention it deserves.

      I'll be in Baltimore next week for Firehouse Expo. I am happy to go for a beer and discuss this more.

  • HOOKMAN

    Curt…and being a public figure or even a limited public figure, you’re subjected to alot….even a limited public figure you’re subjected to alot….as long as that public figure writes articles, books etc, which comtradict the exact principles he relays to his audience and that material is for public view and that person is getting paid to speak, well you open yourself up to alot…whats funny is that the person who makes the comments or what have you…is always the cyberbully or as you say a stalker in the eyes of the person who’s the subject of those comments…but the person who’s being put out there in a negative way takes zero responsibility for their actions and continues to cover their foot paths and whomever talks bad about them the most is the bad guy…..

    Call this person a pain, thorn in ones side etc
    ..but if you believe you’ve been defamed or if you believe someone is stalking you….then step up to the plate and do something….Im very confident and careful about what I say when it comes to internet defamation/libel….I’ve educated myself as much as I can and have read many cases….there’s actually less protections for public figures or limited public figures…they have the ability through many avenues to dispute any online written comment or something that was spoken on the news, as opposed to what a private citizen has available to him/her…

    and last but not least…if that person believes their a victim of libelous internet postings….PROVE THEM WRONG….that old saying the truth hurts…well it fits perfect for your friend in ?….once again….enjoy conversing with you as the law in itself is good conversation….and contrary to what one may think or say of me….Im quite capable of carrying a conversation by looking at both sides….I agree with most of your argument when it comes to 1st Amendment/Defamation issues, but disagree when one person continues to call an individual out and that person cries afoul because that person is ruining their reputation..the only person in that case who’s ruining their reputation, is that person and only that person….the reputation and past history follows them and it couldn’t be more prevalent when that person is looking for employment and nobody is willing to hire that person….I may never convince you or anyone else….but I can assure you that I know right from wrong and know what its like to have morals and ethics….I wouldn’t be a father to my son if I didn’t teach him how to treat others with kindness and respect, but also defend yourself when you know you’ve been wronged and stand up for whats right and what you believe in….

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Hookman

      We all have to live with the Karma we create for ourselves. That includes me, it includes Chief Rubin and it includes you. Rhetoric and rationalizations work on people but not on Karma. When you do harm to others, there is an inescapable price to be paid… Even when you believe you are right.