PROVO — After a four-year court battle, a Provo judge ruled Friday in favor of American Fork city officials and a weekly newspaper and its then-publisher who were sued by a disgruntled resident after the 1999 City Council elections.

"It has been a long four and a half years, but my actions have finally been vindicated in every point," said Brett Bezzant, former publisher of the American Fork Citizen newspaper.

At the heart of the case: Bezzant published an editorial in 1999 that contradicted claims that American Fork resident William Jacob had made in a paid advertisement in the newspaper about two candidates running for American Fork's City Council.

That spurred Jacob, who used the ad to question the eligibility of council candidates Ricky Storrs and Tom Hunter, to file suit against the city and Bezzant.

The suit alleged Bezzant and city officials conspired to violate his constitutional rights. Jacob also claimed in court documents the newspaper defamed him.

After Jacob filed suit, Bezzant filed a counterclaim, saying Jacob's lawsuit was an attempt to chill his First Amendment rights.

Fourth District Court Judge Lynn Davis issued a written ruling on Friday that Utah's Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute was applicable to this case — the first time the statute has been tested in the courts.

In 2001, Utah lawmakers passed a law that allowed people who were sued for practicing their First Amendment rights or trying to participate in the legal process to file a counterclaim.

If the counterclaim is approved — and it was in Bezzant's case — the person who filed the original lawsuit has to pay attorney's fees, costs and damages incurred from the response to the lawsuit.

Davis also ruled that Jacob's claims of defamation and false light lacked legal merit.

"We are disappointed by the ruling, because Mr. Jacob has always acted in what we believe is good faith," said Randall Spencer, Jacob's attorney. Spencer wants to study the ruling and talk with his client before deciding if further action is warranted.


E-mail: utahcounty@desnews.com