LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas court declined to weigh in Wednesday on whether several television stations should have been prohibited from airing a conservative group’s attack ad against a state Supreme Court justice during her re-election bid.
The Court of Appeals dismissed an appeal by Tegna Inc., which challenged a Pulaski County judge’s ruling that prevented several television stations from airing the Judicial Crisis Network’s ad targeting Justice Courtney Goodson before the May 22 judicial election. Goodson won re-election in a November runoff. Tegna is the parent company of Little Rock television station KTHV.
Goodson had argued that the group’s ad was false and defamatory. The spot criticized Goodson over gifts from donors and for a pay raise the chief justice sought on behalf of the court. Goodson later testified that she voted against seeking the pay raise.
The appeals court said the issue was moot because the election was over and the ad was no longer airing.
“We acknowledge an unquestionable substantial public interest in the First Amendment and prohibiting the prior restraint of expression,” the court said in its ruling. “However, addressing this issue will not prevent future litigation.”
An attorney for Tegna said he was disappointed with the ruling and assessing the next steps. The station could appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“It’s a restraint of the most important speech there is, which is political speech,” John Tull, Tegna’s attorney, said. “If you can restrain political speech from occurring by gaining an injunction, the First Amendment is trampled at that point.”
A federal judge last month rejected an effort by Goodson to halt a similar attack ad and mailer from another group, the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative. The committee and the Judicial Crisis Network spent nearly $2.5 million combined on the high court race. Judicial Crisis did not air any ads in the race following the May election.
“We are pleased with the decision today by the Court of Appeals, but we are most proud that it was Arkansas voters that decided the ultimate outcome of this case by re-electing Justice Goodson and by rejecting dark money,” Lauren Hoover, Goodson’s attorney, said in an email.