Less than two months after launching his campaign for Boulder City Council last August, Steve Rosenblum, who works in finance, filed a lawsuit accusing a half-dozen high-profile community organizers of engaging in a conspiracy to spread defamatory statements.
The organizers — many of whom were helping run campaigns for candidates opposing Rosenblum — had published links to an anonymous blog containing statements erroneously attributed to Rosenblum.
Soon after the statements were taken down, Rosenblum alleged in Boulder District Court that the organizers conspired to spread false information about him to damage his reputation and stop his bid for a seat on the council.
“My plan was to file, [then] hopefully they shut up and I focus on the election,” Rosenblum told the Boulder Reporting Lab in an interview. “I needed to put a stop to it, even if it cost me the election.”
In the end, Rosenblum lost the election. But months later, his lawsuit is just starting to ramp up.
In February 2022, a Boulder District Court judge ruled the case can move ahead to a trial. Last week, lawyers defending the organizers named in the suit appealed that ruling to the Colorado Court of Appeals.
The legal back-and-forth sets the stage for a court battle expected to carry on for a year or more. The outcome could have major implications for First Amendment protections under a 2019 Colorado law designed to discourage frivolous lawsuits — known as SLAPP cases — according to lawyers interviewed for this story.
SLAPP suits, or “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” often use allegations of defamation to intimidate critics, saddling them with legal fees and costly time in court. The Colorado law makes it easier to ask judges to toss these cases out sooner. The anti-SLAPP appeal filed by attorneys representing the organizers is now one of a handful pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals. The court is yet to issue a ruling on any such cases.
“It could establish a precedent on how anti-SLAPP motions are to be decided,” said Ashley Kissinger, a First Amendment attorney with the Denver and Boulder branches of the law firm Ballard Spahr. “The first such appellate court precedent will have major implications for defamation litigation in Colorado.”
The lawsuit was filed during the height of last year’s bitter city election, and has since shaped into a battle between those who want to rein in harsh campaign rhetoric and those who want to be able to voice criticism without fear of repercussions.
Rosenblum said the lawsuit sought to “vindicate his name and reputation,” and he now sees it as a public service intended to prevent the kind of behavior he said could degrade political dialogue in future local elections.
Organizers see it as an attempt to silence his political opponents.
Chelsea Castellano, the co-chair of Bedrooms Are For People, a ballot measure committee that unsuccessfully sought to lift Boulder’s housing occupancy limits, was not named in the lawsuit, but said she received a cease-and-desist letter from Rosenblum’s attorney accusing her of publishing defamatory statements about Rosenblum as part of a coordinated smear campaign. Castellano, a sustainability program manager for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said she felt overwhelmed by the letter. She wondered about where she was going to find a lawyer and how she was going to pay for it.
“The risk that comes with standing up for what you believe in feels higher than it did previously. And that should be thought of as a negative thing for people in our community,” Castellano said.
Rosenblum’s road to court
Before launching his campaign, Rosenblum, who moved to Boulder in 2017, became involved with Safer Boulder, a local advocacy group that is “committed to actively supporting public safety” and backs enforcement of the city’s ban on homeless encampments.
In late 2020, an anonymous author of a blog called Safer Leaks published what it said were screenshots from Safer Boulder’s internal Slack communications. Screenshots published by the Safer Leaks blog included members other than Rosenblum discussing physically harming homeless people.
The blog also falsely attributed comments by a Reddit user to Rosenblum. In one such statement, the Reddit user said homeless people “need to be treated like the filth they are.” The blog’s author took down the comments in mid-August, stating “we are not confident in the connection” between the statements by the Reddit user and Rosenblum – but not before community organizers had already published links to the blog.
After reporting a potential “election violation” to the police, on Sept. 22, 2021, Rosenblum sued six of the organizers — one of whom was later dropped from the case — and John Doe, the anonymous author of the Safer Leaks blog.
The suit targets Eric Budd, co-chair of Bedrooms Are For People. Last summer, Budd created a Twitter account called “@steveforboulder” and linked to the Safer Leaks blog in the account bio.
It also includes Boulder Progressives, an unofficial candidate committee set up to support city council candidates who were running against Rosenblum and his allies, plus three of its members. Boulder Progressives published a link to the blog on its website. (Rosenblum’s complaint states the identity of the Safer Leaks author remains unknown. But he said he seeks to find out through discovery and deposition, if the case goes to trial.)
The lawsuit seeks to link them together in a “conspiracy to defame.” By publishing links to the blog, Rosenblum alleged in his complaint, organizers orchestrated a “coordinated smear campaign” that includes spreading “false and defamatory information” to damage his “reputation in the heat of the 2021 Boulder City Council race.”
To lead his case, Rosenblum hired Stan Garnett, the former Boulder County district attorney. Garnett works for the Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and has represented clients including former Congressman Mark Udall and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.
“I felt what happened to Steve was very unfair and it was right for him to go to court to seek redress for it,” Garnett told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “I also love Boulder and I love Boulder politics. I’m happy to get involved in something that I hope will improve the tone of debate.”
According to an engagement letter, Garnett charged a $30,000 advance fee and $875 per hour to start the case. Rosenblum is seeking a “monetary judgment against another party for more than $100,000,” according to court filings.
The organizers’ anti-SLAPP appeal
On Feb. 28, 2022, Boulder District Court Judge Thomas F. Mulvahill ruled that Rosenblum had demonstrated a “reasonable likelihood” he could win some of the claims asserted in the complaint and allowed it to proceed to trial.
But on March 10 and 11, the defendants appealed under a provision in Colorado’s anti-SLAPP law that allows them to argue to have the case tossed out, again, before a three-judge panel on the Colorado Court of Appeals.
This appeal process is not typical in most cases. It is designed to help defendants dismiss meritless lawsuits before having to spend money and time on them. The law also allows defendants to collect attorneys’ fees from the plaintiff if they win.
Mike Foote, a former state senator from Lafayette who helped write the 2019 anti-SLAPP law, said in an email that the point of these provisions was to “deter parties from making outrageous litigation threats in order to quell speech on a topic of public interest.”
Overcoming bedrock First Amendment protections
The lawsuit is now in the hands of the Colorado Court of Appeals. A flurry of filings so far in the case reveals a relatively consistent argument among the defendants who view this case as an attempt to prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech.
In court filings, the attorneys for the organizers, who include Tom Kelley, a First Amendment lawyer with decades of experience, have argued the organizers did not spread false information about Rosenblum with “actual malice” – meaning, with knowledge the information was false or in reckless disregard of the truth.
Proving this, the attorneys say, is necessary to overcome bedrock First Amendment protections established under the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Budd’s attorneys argued he did not know the blog included false information to the extent required to meet the standard. They argued he sought to verify the link between the Reddit user and Rosenblum by emailing the authors of the blog so as to not “restate allegations that were not true.”
In a separate motion to dismiss, the attorneys for the Boulder Progressives said the organization notified readers of its letter that, “the site linked above contains some screenshots from a Reddit account that Boulder Progressives agrees is not Steven Rosenblum.” They also argued that if Rosenblum wants to seek damages for defamation, he has to prove each organizer knew the blog was false or had serious doubts about its truthfulness.
This legal standard is a core component of defamation lawsuits. Some attorneys observing the case said Garnett appears to be seeking to skirt this standard by holding the organizers liable for false statements made by the anonymous blogger and linking them together in a conspiracy.
“And if that were allowed,” said Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment lawyer who used to work at the same firm as Kelley and Kissinger, “it would open the floodgates of litigation in a way that I think Colorado law does not allow.”
Both Zansberg and Kissinger said the case could have particular implications for speech about candidates for public office – even if it’s not the first anti-SLAPP decision the Court of Appeals issues.
“The alleged defamatory speech in this case is core political speech,” Kissinger said. “This type of speech occupies the very highest rung in the constitutional hierarchy.”
‘Was it worth it? Totally not.’
Rosenblum’s finance career started in New York, where he traded derivatives for Goldman Sachs. He later moved to Boulder and said he helped redevelop a Denver property to create federally subsidized housing. Due to this experience in finance and housing development, he said, several people, including Councilmember Bob Yates, asked him to run for City Council in the 2021 election.
“I kind of broke my own rule. Since I was a kid, I was like, ‘Oh, politics is gross,’” Rosenblum said. “I just thought there was this unique local opportunity where the major issue facing the town is where I have the most skill, and there’s some big opportunities and big challenges, so why not?”
But looking back on his race for City Council, Rosenblum said if he could decide whether to do it all over again, he is not sure he would.
Between dealing with questions from business partners and explaining to his friends what is going on, he said the lawsuit has been a waste of his time and a source of mental and emotional anguish.
“Was it worth it? Totally not,” he said.
Rosenblum said he is still open to talking to organizers about how to settle the case.
“I never give up. I’ll never tap out,” he said. “But I’m always open to ending this.”