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KY mayor files defamation suits over negative Facebook posts alleging he abused his office

The Mayor of London is suing three people for damages over posts made about him on Facebook, claiming they caused “injury to his reputation, mental anguish, (and) humiliation.”

London Mayor Randall Weddle filed suit mid-February in Laurel Circuit Court against two different individuals in Laurel County for “defamatory” statements made on the social media website.

Another lawsuit filed by Chris Asher, a gas station proprietor who used the same attorney as Weddle, also honed in on statements made on Facebook related to Weddle.

Weddle, a logistics entrepreneur, has been a massive donor to Democratic causes in recent years. The mayor stirred controversy when it was discovered he contributed more than $200,000 in other people’s names to Gov. Andy Beshear’s successful 2023 reelection bid and the Kentucky Democratic Party. Afterward, he legally gave a group supporting Beshear’s gubernatorial run $550,000.

In one lawsuit against resident Sherri Rudder-Smith, Weddle’s attorney Jeremy Bryant wrote his client is seeking damages because Rudder-Smith insinuated Weddle was abusing his power as mayor.

“Such comments have included, but not been limited to, Mayor Weddle utilizing his authority to conspire against London citizens discriminatingly, using city agents to ‘chalk’ the tires of patrons frequenting downtown restaurants for the purpose of pulling over drivers under the influence of alcohol at sporting and social events,” Bryant wrote.

Bryant called this statement “malicious and libelous,” and that Rudder-Smith’s popularity on Facebook increased the harm to Weddle.

“The Defendant has a Facebook profile that reaches an audience extending far beyond the scope of the local community,” Bryant wrote. “This has not only impacted Plaintiff’s reputation as a citizen, business owner, and elected official in Laurel County, Kentucky, but also his reputation in the Commonwealth of Kentucky as a whole.”

Rudder-Smith’s attorney, Stefan Bing, said in a statement provided to the Herald-Leader that Rudder-Smith “emphatically denies that she has made any defamatory statements” about Weddle.

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“It is profoundly disappointing that Mayor Weddle, a high profile public figure, has decided to use our taxpayer-funded court system to target a private citizen for exercising her protected First Amendment rights,” Bing said in the statement.

Bryant, Weddle and Asher’s attorney, has yet to respond to a request for comment on the cases.

Josh Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, said the standard for defamation cases like these is whether the defendant “knows it is false or has reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.” That standard is called “actual malice,” and it can change when the subject is a public official like Weddle, he said.

“Courts generally hold that the actual malice standard is a relatively high bar, especially when the statement is about a public official and the matter is of public concern,” Douglas said.

Weddle directed a similar lawsuit at Shane and Rachel Bowling. He said the couple posted that he is using to the mayor’s office to “line his pockets,” directing government employees to fill up their vehicles at a certain gas station where Weddle is a “silent partner.” Bryant said they “expressly spread false information” in doing so.

Robert Thompson, an attorney for the Bowlings, told the Herald-Leader they will “aggressively respond” to Weddle in future court filings.

“The lawsuits are a blatant attack on the constitutional protections afforded to every citizen. The Bowlings will not be silenced or coerced into relinquishing their right to express critical opinions on matters of political concern,” Thompson said in a statement.

Ruby Market owner sues couple

The third lawsuit, from Asher, names Shane and Rachel Bowling as well as an individual named Jimmy Phelps. The suit targets posts made by the Bowlings’ shared Facebook account and Facebook comments made by Jimmy Phelps.

Asher owns Ruby Market in London, a gas station that was the site of a free gas giveaway that Weddle hosted three months before his election as mayor — an attorney for Weddle has called the giveaway a “neutral philanthropic” event that was completely divorced from Weddle’s political ambitions.

According to the London Sentinel-Echo, the Facebook account run by the Bowlings alleged Weddle directed city vehicles to fill up at Ruby Market.

Weddle has publicly denied the claim at a city council meeting, the newspaper reported. He did claim, however, that he contacted businesses about getting a discount for fuel and that Ruby Market was the only establishment to respond. He said the city had saved around $6,000 in one month due to that discount.

Weddle’s gas giveaway at Ruby Market is the subject of a complaint to the Kentucky Registry for Election Finance.

In the lead-up to Beshear’s reelection, Republican officials raised alarm when a road project that would benefit Weddle’s logistics business was moved up to be constructed ahead of schedule. Beshear administration officials said the move was above board and that it saved time and money on a necessary project.