- A wealthy tech magnate sued retired search-and-rescue operator Gary Gadwa after Gary opposed his permit application for a designated airstrip.
- The trial court knocked down the lawsuit on free speech grounds, but the tech magnate appealed the decision to the Idaho Supreme Court.
- FIRE is stepping in to defend Gary and ask the Idaho Supreme Court to affirm strong protections against baseless lawsuits that infringe First Amendment rights.
BOISE, Idaho, Oct. 2, 2023 — The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is defending a lifelong Idaho conservation officer at the Idaho Supreme Court after he was sued by a wealthy tech magnate for nothing more than exercising his First Amendment rights.
Gary Gadwa is a former emergency medical technician with 38 years of experience in search-and-rescue operations in the federally protected Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Even in retirement, he volunteers as a fire lookout, spending weeks at a time in the mountains looking for the telltale signs of forest fires at Salmon–Challis National Forest.
“I’ve dedicated my life to two things: protecting my community and protecting the Sawtooth Mountains,” said Gary. “I’ll never stop speaking my mind, no matter who tries to silence me.”
In 2021, Michael Boren, co-founder of Boise-based financial tech firm Clearwater Analytics, applied for a county permit to designate part of his Stanley, Idaho, ranch as an airstrip. When Boren claimed it could be used for search-and-rescue operations, Gary felt the need to speak up and speak out. Drawing on his experience, Gary contributed to an op-ed and testified before a county commission that he believed the airstrip would not serve future rescue operations and could have a negative effect on local wildlife and the natural beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains.
Boren was ultimately granted the permit over Gary’s and many others’ objections. But instead of taking his permit and going home, Boren turned around and sued Gary and more than 20 other critics for defamation.
“Gary spoke up when he saw something he thought would harm his community, just like every American should,” said FIRE senior attorney JT Morris. “Speech on public issues lies at the heart of the First Amendment — and the First Amendment squarely protects Gary’s speech opposing a designated airstrip that neighbors public lands.”
Idaho’s 7th District Court correctly dismissed the lawsuit against Gary in 2022, but Boren appealed that decision. Now, FIRE is representing Gary and is asking the Idaho Supreme Court to affirm the trial court’s dismissal and uphold his right to engage in First Amendment-protected speech without being sued into silence.
As FIRE explained to the Idaho Supreme Court, Boren’s legal action against Gary exemplifies a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or “SLAPP.” SLAPPs are groundless lawsuits intended not to win on the merits, but to silence and punish critics for their speech by forcing them into costly litigation.
While more than 30 states have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation, Idaho isn’t one of them. In his decision dismissing Boren’s lawsuit, Judge Stevan H. Thompson warned of “the potential for a great chilling effect on constitutional rights not just for these named defendants but for all the members of the public who spoke on this issue.” He urged the Idaho Supreme Court to weigh in on “what may be a SLAPP suit.”
“SLAPPs force speakers into an impossible choice: Either self-censor, or face financial ruin defending your rights in a lawsuit,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “Either way, free expression loses.”
FIRE is working on the case with local counsel Nicholas A. Warden, a partner at Bailey & Glasser LLP. Gary’s co-defendant is former Blaine County commissioner Sarah Michael, represented by attorney Deborah Ferguson.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Alex Griswold, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com