PANAMA CITY – A Bay County judge heard arguments Wednesday on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit a sitting Panama City Beach Councilman filed against a local media personality and while he has not issued a ruling, he did set a trial date of Jan. 28.
Panama City Beach Councilman Hector Solis appeared in court Wednesday for a hearing in his defamation lawsuit against Burnie Thompson, a former candidate for a seat on the council and internet talk show host. Solis filed the defamation lawsuit in March, claiming he has been maliciously attacked on air with falsehoods about his employment history as an officer in the federal prison system. However, Thompson has since argued the lawsuit should be dismissed on grounds that he never exhibited a reckless disregard for the truth and was only questioning a public official about a campaign platform that contributed to Solis’ being elected.
Circuit Judge James Fensom heard from both sides and will issue a ruling at a later date. Both Thompson and Solis filed public records stating their positions leading up to Wednesday’s hearing.
Thompson had previously filed a one-page motion for dismissal in April but expanded on his request Tuesday in a supplemental court filing. In the document, Thompson said that the lawsuit is baseless because he did not demonstrate “actual malice” against Solis, which is an element elected officials have to prove in defamation suits.
“The complaint filed by (Solis) alleges that I… committed reckless disregard for the truth with malicious intent,” Thompson wrote. Solis “goes on to allege that a letter from his friend with an inaccurate retirement date did not need a correction because his friend had since retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Insisting that a journalist should accept this inaccurate document as employment verification highlights the shear absurdity of (Solis’) claim.”
A couple of weeks earlier, Solis argued against Thompson’s motion, writing that actual malice had been demonstrated by Thompson repeating “scandalous accusations in the face of considerable evidence to refute them.”
“The First Amendment freedom is not unlimited,” Solis wrote. “Similarly, even taking as given (Thompson) is a journalist, the fact alone would not provide him with the unfettered right to say any and everything he chooses to say.”
Solis claims in the lawsuit the slander began because of his support for laws in 2016 meant to tone down Spring Break, which led him to run a successful campaign for a council seat as a law-and-order candidate and former law enforcement officer.
In April 2017, Thompson began questioning Solis’ campaign statements that he worked as a corrections officer at a federal prison and claimed that Solis was instead a “groundskeeper.” Thompson often pontificated on air whether the claim amounted to “stolen valor,” a federal crime.
In January, a friend of Solis’ posted online the document meant to verify his 29-year career. However, the date of retirement on the documents was incorrect. Despite later receiving what Solis considers confirmation from the bureau of federal prisons, Thompson did not issue a retraction as Solis requested.
Solis has claimed at least $15,000 in damages, which is the minimum claim required in circuit court lawsuits, and demanded a jury trial. A jury could award more, less, or side with Thompson. The case also could be settled out of court.