Arizona rancher wins libel suit against environmental watch dog group

February 16, 2005: In an unusual episode in the longstanding 'ranchers vs. environmentalists' drama, a jury awarded Arizona rancher and investment banker Jim Chilton $600,000 in actual and punitive damages to be paid by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The non-profit environmental group, which since its founding in 1989 has made its reputation by filing lawsuits on behalf of endangered species, in July 2002 posted photos on its website allegedly depicting environmental damage caused by Chilton's cattle on a 21,5000-acre Forest Service allotment northwest of Nogales, Arizona. The center posted the photos as part of a campaign to bar renewal of Chilton's Forest Service grazing permit.

Chilton, a fifth generation rancher, sued the group for libel, charging that photos and captions willfully misrepresented his ranching practices.

The center's lawyer argued that the photos and other material represented the environmental group's opinions, and thus that they should be protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Kieran Suckling, the center's director, was quoted as saying, "We did things with the best of intentions. If there were some mistakes, they were honest mistakes."

After two-weeks of testimony, 21 witnesses and more than 100 exhibits the jury, in a 9-1 decision, ruled the claims made about Chilton were indeed, “false, unfair, libelous and defamatory.” Chilton promised that after paying for his legal expenses and reimbursing himself for costs he would donate the remainder of the award to the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association.

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