HARRISBURG - The state's former chief dog-law enforcer is plunging into rarely traveled legal territory by suing her critics in the animal-welfare world for alleged defamation.
The suit, filed Wednesday in Dauphin County Court by Jessie Smith, former special deputy secretary of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, could test the boundaries of libel law in cyberspace and raises fresh issues about what constitutes malice in the public realm, a legal expert says.
In her lawsuit, Smith, appointed in 2006 by then-Gov. Ed Rendell and dismissed last year after Gov. Corbett took office, contends she was the victim of a years-long smear campaign by "radical animal-welfare activists" who suggested she had traded leniency on dog-law enforcement for sexual favors with a kennel operator. One activist has contended the suggestions were meant in jest.
Named in the suit are Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs; and Jenny Stephens, founder of North Penn Puppy Mill Watch in Lansdale, both of whom were outspoken in the heated battle over legislation to improve conditions in commercial dog kennels that culminated in passage of a new dog law in 2008.
A third person, Teresita Delgado of Lancaster, is identified in the suit as a blogger who published posts berating Jessie Smith for not shutting down a problematic Lancaster County kennel.
One post said Smith was receiving sexual favors from kennel owner Marlin Zimmerman in exchange for passing marks in kennel inspections.
Delgado wrote about "having [Smith's] name all over the Internet connected with sexual favors on a Mennonite."
That blog entry, described as satire by the author but termed defamation in the lawsuit, spurred additional postings by the other defendants and a photo of a horse-drawn buggy with the caption "Are Smith and Zimmerman getting it on in the back of this buggy?" the suit said.
That was the straw that broke the camel's back, said Jessie Smith's attorney, Andrew Barbin.
Smith alleges the blog post was widely circulated by Bill Smith and Stephens as part of a "continuous and relentless campaign of systematic defamation, disparagement, and false-light deposition" by the three defendants in blogs, e-mails, and public rallies, according to the suit.
An attorney for one of the defendants called the legal action a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP) designed to silence advocates.
"It is indeed a sad day in Pennsylvania when those who endeavor to be a voice for the exploited dogs trapped in the puppy mills are instead encumbered by a SLAPP lawsuit filed by an embittered bureaucrat," said Garen Meguerian, who is representing Stephens. "Fortunately, we still have the First Amendment in this country and in this commonwealth, and we trust that the courts will see this lawsuit for what it is."
In an e-mailed response, Bill Smith said: "In order to prove someone defamed you, you must have proof. The allegations are ridiculous and untrue, and our attorneys will react accordingly. What's next? Ed Rendell suing us for pressuring him into passing stronger dog laws?"
As a public official, Jessie Smith has a lofty hurdle to vault to prove a defamation case before a judge or jury, First Amendment expert Robert Richards said.
"The standard of liability is much higher. You have to prove actual malice - that is, that people made statements knowing them to be false," said Richards, codirector of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University. "With a non-official, you only have to show negligence."
He said the bar was set high for a reason: "We want to encourage debate on matters of public concern, and anything but that standard could have a chilling effect on public expression."
Barbin acknowledged the high threshold but said there was "a line that shouldn't be crossed."
"It will be up to the judge and jury to determine if that line was crossed," he said.
Jessie Smith spent 20 years as a lawyer in the state Attorney General's Office and was a board member of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area before being appointed to the dog-law post.
Under her watch, the legislature enacted the new dog law and enforcement increased. She alleges the widespread "character assassination" and "baseless claims" by the defendants led to her dismissal in June 2011, at which point she returned to the Attorney General's Office.
Raising new issues in the growing but still largely uncharted waters of cyberspace libel, the suit also names the news organizations Lancaster Newspapers and York Newspapers for publishing stories referring to the blog that contained the disparaging remarks.
"There are a tremendous amount of people being sued over Facebook posts or critical posts on sites like Yelp," Richards said. "This raises the issue of defamation not in publication, but in a link."