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Man challenges speech protection for lawmakers

 

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A feud between two neighbors that spilled onto the floor of the Montana House is now headed to the Supreme Court. Robert F. Cooper's lawsuit against Republican Rep. Bill Glaser of Huntley says Glaser called him a "kook" who had been imprisoned in Japan for threatening a military officer and institutionalized at the state mental hospi tal in Warm Springs. Glaser did not mention Cooper by name when he criticized him over a letter he arranged to have distributed in the House in March 5. Cooper's letter described his fa i l e d a t t emp t s t o g e t Yellowstone County commissioners to change the name of Squaw Creek Road, which runs through an area 15 miles south of Billings where both Glaser, 70, and Cooper, 68, own property. Cooper wrote that the word squaw has "a racial, vulgar and superiority context" and asked legislators why there was still a Squaw Creek Road. The letter noted that Glaser and Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, were among area residents who signed petitions to the commissioners opposing the name change. District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena dismissed Cooper's lawsuit in October, citing a provision in the state Constitution that grants lawmakers immunity from legal actions over what they say in debates and speeches. "It is apparent from the plain language of the provision that the immunity covers statements made by a legislator during legislative proceedings, which is the situation here," Seeley wrote. Cooper's appeal to the Montana Supreme Court argues the "speech and debate" clause shouldn't cover Glaser's March 5 speech because he never mentioned any legislative issues. "A denouncement of (a) citizen which falsely portrays him as a criminal, insane and 'not an ordinary member of society' would be criminal defamation under Montana law," Cooper argued in his brief. "Yet the court let a public official rise to this level of hatred, ill will and malicious conduct without any recourse for the appellant." Cooper said he served 11 years in the military with stints in Vietnam and Korea and received four honorable discharges. He provided copies of the discharges and a military record to the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. He also provided a copy of a 2009 letter from the administrator of the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs saying no one with Cooper's name or birth date had ever been a patient at the institution. Glaser defended his statements. "I believe there's a good deal of truth in what I said," he said. "The whole community believes it." The feud between Cooper and Glaser dates back several years. Cooper has twice sued Glaser over issues at the Haley Bench Fire Department, where Glaser is co-chief.

 

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