The libel case between attorney Danny Tarkanian and State Senator Mike Schneider was settled in court Monday. The suit stemmed from comments and campaign mailers made by Schneider, who was running against Tarkanian in 2004. The ads linked Tarkanian to criminal investigations into telemarketing companies.
Going to trial might have resulted in higher punitive damages, so Schneider agreed to pay Tarkanian $150,000 for court fees, lawyer expenses and damages. Insiders say the win for Tarkanian will drastically alter everything from political TV ads, campaign mailers, and even stump speeches and interviews.
Everyone has seen the ads that make mountains out of molehills and reduce a person's career to sound bites and we've heard the campaign talk that most candidates use. But now, the politics of attack can become major lawsuits and paydays for victims. Everyone is on notice.
"This was just your average campaign," said Sen. Mike Schneider(D) Las Vegas.
Senator Schneider does not feel like he needs to apologize -- not for his long career in Carson City and not for his comments. Schneider raised the questions in 2004, blasting Tarkanian.
Schneider tried to connect the famous coach's son to criminal investigations into his clients. Tarkanian called that defamatory and untrue. "You can't go far enough where you call somebody a criminal and not have any basis for those statements," he said.
With the new legal precedent set, Tarkanian says the rules of the game have changed. "You're going to be held accountable when you go past that line of spin and campaign rhetoric," he said.
Schneider says he was only raising questions about Tarkanian's background. There might not have been full proof, but he thought voters needed to know about any questionable activity. He still stands by what happened. "I think it's devastating to free speech," he said. "We didn't admit any guilt there. There was no apology made. We just settled and moved on."
Mark Fierro is a political strategist. He says this case will force campaigns to go positive or else face legal wrath. "People are going to take an extra breath -- take a deep breath and say, ‘How do we know this? It is according to published reports?'" he said.
That may change content in political ads, mix things up for fliers and mailers at your doorstep, and even hit speeches and interviews.
Senator Schneider says his insurance will cover the $150,000 in damages. He said he would not have settled if he didn't have the insurance. He would have appealed and kept on fighting.
It's not known how this new case law will affect campaigns until somebody pushes the envelope and a victim of a political ad or comment goes fighting in court. But expect fewer attack ads in the coming months and next November.