One of the dirty little secrets about the American legal system is that might, that is money, often makes “right.” Those with the wherewithal can legally and financially exhaust others, effectively punish them with frivolous lawsuits. That seems to be the case with one of the unsung good guys in North Dakota, Jim Fuglie.
Jim is a former reporter for the Dickinson Press, a writer for many magazines, former North Dakota Tourism director, a Navy veteran and the guy we had in mind, idealistically, when the Internet was born — a citizen journalist who has the training, integrity and heart to make a difference.
And that’s what got him in trouble.
Some folks don’t like difference-makers. Especially when they’re on the right side of the angels.
Jim and I share a Hettinger, N.D., connection where his roots are and where I published the Adams County Record for the better part of a decade. He reached out many times over the years, offering encouragement and support, the lifeblood necessary to survival in weekly newspapering. A well-timed pat on the back can make your day.
I was fortunate to spend some time about a year ago in the Badlands with Jim and numerous other “activists” for lack of a better word. Folks from all political persuasions gathered for one purpose, to discuss ways to make life in North Dakota better. Among the attendees was Clay Jenkinson, North Dakota’s acclaimed historian, and like Jim, an advocate for our state’s natural beauty and resources.
I’ll let Clay provide some background:
“In his writings (in The Prairie Blog), Jim has occasionally mentioned people who were doing things he felt were harmful to the landscape and air quality of western North Dakota. This includes companies like Meridian Energy, which wants to put an oil refinery next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and county commissioners who want to build a bridge and truck freeway through the Little Missouri River Valley.
“In all of his writings, I know he has been careful not to publish anything he knew to be untrue, slanderous or libelous about anyone. He had never been accused of slander or libel until the fall of 2021, when he was sued for defamation of character by a wealthy former Billings County commissioner.
“In the end, it was a frivolous but expensive lawsuit, purely harassment with no merit, and eventually dismissed. But the battle continues. The wealthy county commissioner has now appealed the dismissal to the North Dakota Supreme Court, and legal bills continue to mount, expected to be at least $15,000. That’s a big bite for a retired guy on a fixed income.”
So Clay has done what loyal friends do; he created a GoFundMe drive for Jim’s defense. I’ll provide the link at the end of the column.
Here’s why I think it’s important, and it’s not just because I like Jim and admire the work he does to inform, enlighten and defend our interests in the Badlands. It’s because I hate bullies. Despise ’em.
In my line of work, it’s a given that we’re going to run into threats and intimidation, but we have company and industry attorneys who are called upon from time to time to defend us — and, more importantly, you — because democracy doesn’t work without people like Jim Fuglie shining a light in the dark corners where the rats are at work. But Jim’s excellent and critical journalism isn’t affiliated with anyone. Except hopefully you. I’ve got Jim’s back. How about you?
These kinds of lawsuits are designed to send a message. They don’t just want Jim to stop airing the facts. They want to intimidate others, as well. They want to make an example of people like Jim. Kinda like the Mob: “Nice retirement account you got there. Be a pity if something happened to it …” Journalists know that even if we’re letter-perfect in our reporting, someone with deep enough pockets can punish us for exercising the First Amendment. It costs money to prove you’re right. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the situation.
Yes, there should be protections against libel and slander. Our system is bound together by checks and balances. But sometimes the system is abused, and along with it, good people doing important work.
This is our opportunity to send a message, too, to get as many names and donations on the list to let the bullies know we’re not just going to roll over. The plaintiff is trying to make an impression. Let’s make a bigger one. There’s an axiom about paying it forward. In this case, you’re paying it back.
© Tony Bender, 2023