BYU professor named defendant in defamation lawsuit, says suit has implications for future of Utah Lake

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Benjamin Abbott is an ecology professor at BYU and a Utah Lake activist. Abbott was named in a defamation lawsuit for comments regarding a proposal to develop Utah Lake. (Decker Westenburg)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with some clarifications and corrections.

BYU professor Benjamin Abbott has been named in a lawsuit alleging he made defamatory statements while engaged in an effort to stop the development of Utah Lake.

The suit, filed by Lake Restoration Solutions on Jan. 10, states that in his criticism of the Utah Lake Restoration Project, Abbott knowingly made false claims to sway public opinion.

Lake Restoration Solutions is seeking at least $3 million in damages for defamation, false light and “intentional interference with prospective economic relations.” If they win, the recovered damages will be donated to environmental conservation non-profits, according to the civil complaint.

“While Lake Restoration welcomes fulsome, fact-based discussion of the Project (about which Lake Restoration has repeatedly invited public feedback), Abbott is not entitled to poison the debate with his false and defamatory statements,” the document says.

The project in question contains plans to dredge the floor of Utah Lake and construct, with the excavated material, several large islands that will serve residential as well as recreational and conservational purposes.

Since the project was made public in 2017, Abbott has been a vocal critic, arguing the plan is likely to cause more harm than good and posting similar claims on his blog and social media accounts.

For Abbott, who felt he was doing his duty as a concerned citizen and professor of ecosystem ecology, the lawsuit came as a surprise.

“I really was shocked to receive the lawsuit,” Abbott said. “I’ve tried my best to accurately represent the science of Utah Lake and also this project.”

Despite what Lake Restoration Solutions has said publicly about their willingness to engage in public dialogue, they have shown little real interest in doing so, Abbott said.

“I had reached out to them previously to see if we could meet and talk and exchange ideas,” Abbott said. “They unfortunately declined that invitation and chose instead to respond with the lawsuit.”

Though much is still unknown about the ultimate outcome of the suit’s claims, some people, including Abbott, see the actions of the organization as being far from sincere. Abbott said he spoke to several lawyers about the lawsuit and he believes it is an effort to intimidate and have a chilling effect on public discourse about the topic.

Professor Ben Abbott works in his office on the BYU campus. Abbott thinks the lawsuit brought against him is an effort to silence opposition to the development of Utah Lake. (Decker Westenburg)

Strategic lawsuit against public participation

In a recent op-ed for the Deseret News, BYU journalism professor Joel Campbell argued the suit may be a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP.

“To me, the purpose clearly was to slap down some expert opinion that should be valuable to the discussion,” Campbell said in an interview.

SLAPP lawsuits, he explained, can include a wealthy developer using a lawsuit and the threat of expensive legal fees to silence activists and dissuade further opposition.

Though a Lake Restoration Solutions representative did not respond to a phone call for this story, their president and chief operating officer Jon Benson said the company welcomes public scrutiny and feedback in an op-ed response to Campbell.

“We invite new ideas and constructive criticism and have spent years meeting with interested parties and government officials proactively seeking that kind of input,” he said.

However, to Janalee Tobias, who herself was subject to a crippling SLAPP two decades ago, Abbott’s story has all the familiar trappings of a SLAPP suit.

Tobias, a BYU graduate and South Jordan resident, was sued for $1.7 million after forming a citizen group and initiating a petition to halt the construction of office buildings along a portion of the Jordan River south of Salt Lake City.  

After nine years of litigation, the lawsuit was thrown out under Utah’s Citizen Participation in Government Act, a then recently passed anti-SLAPP statute, and the company was forced to pay a portion of Tobias’ legal fees.

This victory belies the toll the lawsuit took on Tobias and her family. “Financially, it wiped us out,” she said

Years later, her emotions surrounding the lawsuit are still raw. “You don’t fight fair when you come in and you sue people for millions of dollars and you stop their free speech,” she said.

According to Tobias, the intention of SLAPPs is not to obtain legitimate damages but rather to discourage public participation surrounding a project. They almost always include a “silencing,” she said. The suit brought against Tobias, for example, contained an order to refrain from attending city council meetings for three years.

In addition to the $3 million in damages, the Lake Restoration Solutions lawsuit also includes a request for a judge to order Abbott to immediately stop making any further “derogatory, misleading or false statements regarding Lake Restoration, the project or the proposal.” The suit also asks a judge to order Abbott to delete all such comments from his social media and websites and agree to not make any similar statements in the future.

Andrew Follett, a Yale law student and colleague of Abbott, said he sees this as the purpose behind the lawsuit. “I do absolutely see this as a means to punish somebody who’s speaking out,” he said.

However, the truth may not be so immediately clear. Ed Carter, practicing attorney and BYU journalism professor, suggested a more cautious approach.

“It’s important to reserve judgment and have a little patience because we can’t immediately say this is good, this is bad, this side is going to win, this side is going to lose. We just don’t know,” Carter said.

He explained that lawyers are under obligation not to file frivolous claims in court, though he clarified that does not mean the lawsuit will ultimately succeed.

It is also unclear whether Abbott’s comments regarding the legitimacy of the Utah Lake Restoration Project would fall under Utah’s narrow anti-SLAPP legislation.

Though there is some ambiguity in how it should be interpreted, Carter said it is likely the Utah statute only applies to language directed toward politicians and political processes, such as in a city council meeting.

Regardless of the suit’s outcome, some in the community still see it as a dangerous move for public participation.

Danny Dudley, a former student of Abbott’s who is studying strategic management and environmental science at BYU, thinks Lake Restoration Solutions’ actions send an important message.

“I think that this lawsuit speaks volumes,” Dudley said. “If they’re going to sue a professor for $3 million for providing constructive criticism like that, that says a lot about it.”

A shelf in Abbott’s BYU office shows a note reading, “Utah: People working together.” Abbott hopes the lawsuit he is engaged in can help bring more awareness to the proposal to develop Utah Lake. (Decker Westenburg)

Though Abbott is worried about his own situation, he is more fearful for what the lawsuit could mean for the future of the community.

Abbott fears this type of lawsuit could become a frequent occurrence. “If it becomes normalized in our community, then the only people who are going to be able to participate in the public debate are those who can afford to have permanent legal representation,” he said. “That is not a kind of world that I want to live in.”

Follett hopes the lawsuit will have the opposite effect and instead will increase public participation surrounding the issues that matter most to the community.

“I think that this will galvanize opposition to the islands project. I think it’ll mobilize and increase the base of people who are willing to speak up against it,” he said. “I think that it will bring public attention to Utah Lake, and as a result public appreciation.”

Abbott also sees this as a positive opportunity. “I think that they intended this lawsuit to silence me. Instead, they gave me an opportunity to work on this issue full time,” he said.

Abbott will release a response to the lawsuit Tuesday morning. He will also have a press conference at Lindon Marina in Vineyard at 11 a.m. where several community leaders will be speaking about Lake Restoration Solutions’ legal action and the restoration of Utah Lake.

The public event is open to all and will be streamed on the Conserve Utah Valley Facebook page.

The future of the Utah Lake has become the center of growing controversy and public debate. (Contributed by community photographer for utahlake.byu.edu)
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