Former Billings County Commissioner sues blogger for defamation
Jim Arthaud, formerly the chair of the Billings County Commission, has filed a lawsuit against an outdoor blogger and former state Tourism Director Jim Fuglie in response to a 2018 blog post in which Fuglie is alleged to have claimed that Arthaud improperly influenced a sitting U.S. Senator.
BILLINGS COUNTY, N.D. — A defamation lawsuit filed by former Billings County Commission chairman Jim Arthaud against popular blogger and former North Dakota Tourism Division director Jim Fuglie pits two well known figures in western North Dakota in a non-criminal tort case centered on defamation of character.
Over the years, Fuglie's website The Prairie Blog, in which he has been a staunch opponent to attempts by the Billings County Commission to build a bridge across the Little Missouri River, has gained a following on the Western Edge. In his blog, Fuglie has called the attempts to move forward with a bridge project a “boneheaded, stupid, selfish idea.”
In his blog, Fuglie argued that the bridge would harm the ecosystem of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, through dust from the road and disruptions of wildlife patterns.
Now, years after a blog made alleged "false," "defamatory" and "injurious" statements about Arthaud, the former Billings County Commission chairman is filing suit.
Arthaud, as well as past and current commissioners, have been vocal proponents of the bridge project, citing it as a necessity in providing a more accessible route of transportation for oil field businesses and tourists. Further the commission claims that the bridge would provide the county a crucial causeway for emergency services to reach the rural communities they serve.
Subjected to hatred, contempt and ridicule
In one particular post, titled “A Bridge to Nowhere” published on Aug. 2, 2018, Fuglie laid out a history of the proposed bridge site and is alleged to have suggested that Arthaud’s motivations behind the project were related to his business interests. Fuglie further noted Arthaud's active involvement and generous donations to Republican causes, using that to level an anecdotal accusation against him.
“Arthaud knows something about dealing with politicians. Here’s a story from a friend of a friend of a friend. Someone was in Arthaud’s office and needed something from Sen. John Hoeven. Arthaud picked up the phone, dialed up Hoeven’s office in Washington, DC, got Hoeven on the phone, got what his friend needed, hung up, and said ‘That’s what $20,000 will get you,’” Fuglie wrote in the post .
North Dakota has a two-year statute of limitations for any lawsuit involving defamation of character, unless the alleged offense was unknown to the individual in question.
Arthaud's legal filing states that he did not learn of this post until September of 2021, three years after its publication.
Attorneys for Arthaud, Lawrence Bender, Mark W. Vyvyan and Spencer D. Ptacek of the Bismarck law firm Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., claim the article's content constitute libelous defamation and have filed a civil lawsuit against Fuglie with the South Central District Court of North Dakota in Burleigh County.
“Fuglie’s statement is false. Arthaud never used campaign contributions to improperly influence Senator Hoeven and he never bragged about any such improper influence,” Bender wrote in an official complaint to the court on Oct. 5, 2021. “Fuglie’s statement is also defamatory Accusing Arthaud of improperly influencing an elected official and bragging about the same subjected Arthaud to hatred, contempt and ridicule, and, upon information and belief, injured Arthaud in his occupation.”
In defense of the claim of libel, Arthaud's attorney argues that Fuglie acted with actual malice by knowingly publishing a false statement or at the very least, exercising reckless disregard for the truth when citing an unnamed connection three times removed from himself as the source.
Arthaud has exercised his right to a trial by jury and has requested such through his legal filing.
Motion to dismiss and protected speech
Fuglie’s Attorney, Chris Edison of the Bismarck law firm Bormann, Myerchin, Espeseth & Edison, LLP, filed a response to the complaint on Oct. 25, 2021. In the response, Edison argues that Fuglie admits to making the aforementioned statement, as well as calling the proposed bridge a, “huge embarrassment.” They acknowledge and admit to referring to it as Arthaud’s “brainchild,” to which Fuglie asserts that Arthaud pushed for the project for more than 15 years. Edison contends that each of these statements contain speech protected by the North Dakota Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Furthermore, in a Jan. 24, 2022, brief filed in support of Fuglie’s motion to dismiss the case, Edison cites the North Dakota law regarding statute of limitations on allegations of defamation. Fuglie's attorney claims the litigation is a frivolous attempt to sidestep the time barriers established in law and asserts that the post was in the public view and it is not unreasonable to expect that Arthaud knew it existed.
Fuglie declined to comment on the ongoing litigation citing that the courts will hear the arguments and make their ruling. Attempts to reach Arthaud for comment were unsuccessful.
Proceedings in the lawsuit remain ongoing and a jury trial has been scheduled to begin on Oct. 11.