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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 by Jo Clifton
Zimmerman threatens lawsuit over abuse stories
An attorney representing District 6 candidate Don Zimmerman has threatened to sue The Austin Bulldog over last week’s story referring to alleged physical abuse of his daughter and subsequent court action giving Zimmerman’s ex-wife sole managing conservatorship of the child.
Zimmerman’s attorney, Stephen Casey, also demanded that the Austin Monitor retract a Whisper concerning the Bulldog story in last Friday’s publication within 24 hours. Even though the Monitor does not believe the item was defamatory, the item was removed from the site Friday evening.
However, the statement that Zimmerman had “lost his parental rights” was imprecise. He remains the child’s possessory conservator. That means that he has the right to receive information and consult with professionals about his daughter’s health, education and welfare; the right to access medical records, dental records and school records; the right to consent to medical treatment; and the right to manage the estate of the child “to the extent the estate has been created by the parent or the parent’s family.” All of those rights are set forth in court records dated June 16, 2014.
The Bulldog has not apparently removed or changed its story since receiving Casey’s letter.
According to the agreed temporary injunction filed in Travis County District Court Feb. 16, 2011, Zimmerman was prohibited from visiting, having possession of, contacting or communicating with the child, MZ (name redacted for this story). Zimmerman and the child’s mother were divorced in 2005.
Zimmerman reportedly told the Bulldog that all the information cited in court documents from 2011 were “unequivocal lies. They are outright fabrications and absolute lies.” That story also contains links to notes from MZ’s doctor, Deborah Neitsch, MD, who urged the girl’s mother, Kateryna Bochenkova, to seek the restraining order and contacted Child Protective Services, as required by state law when there is a suspicion of abuse.
Court documents cited in both stories show that Zimmerman relinquished his custodial rights to the child on June 16, 2014.
Bulldog editor Ken Martin declined comment for this story and referred a reporter to his lawyer, Bill Aleshire.
Aleshire said, “At this time, I don’t have any reason to believe that The Bulldog reported anything except what’s in the records.” He explained that journalists are not subject to defamation suits when reporting on a judicial proceeding based on court records. “There is a privilege to be able to do that,” he said, noting that the threatened legal action “has the smell of a SLAPP suit.”
SLAPP stands for a strategic lawsuit against public participation. It is generally regarded as a suit intended to censor or intimidate members of the media and other critics by forcing them to concentrate on defending themselves against a lawsuit. The point of the SLAPP is that such a burden will cause the defendant to stop saying or publishing the critical information. The SLAPP suit also may cause other critics to give up the idea of pursuing the same story or line of criticism.
The State of Texas has a strong anti-SLAPP statute that allows the defendant in such a suit to seek dismissal of the case within 60 days of its filing.
Zimmerman is in a six–way race to represent District 6. Political observers believe this race will be decided in a runoff on Dec. 16, like many of the other City Council races.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council November 2014 Elections: The November 2014 Austin City Council elections marked a shift from an all-at-large City Council to one elected based mostly on geographic districts. The city's Mayor remains elected at-large.
The Austin Bulldog: An independent, nonprofit local newspaper dedicated to investigative reporting.