Court allows defamation suit against swinging former employee of Spokane theater

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A state appellate court has allowed a previously dismissed defamation lawsuit against a polyamorous former employee of Spokane Civic Theatre who engaged in vitriolic blogging against the arts center to proceed.

The court’s decision is the latest development in the story of Yvonne Johnson, the former executive artistic director at the Civic who helped turn the financially struggling theater around, but also left a trail of enemies before being abruptly fired from her position.

One of those enemies was James Ryan, who was hired in 2010 as the theater’s full-time music director. After being hired, the theater received an anonymous email disclosing the non-monogamous nature of Ryan’s marriage as well as his use of nude photographs and texts while searching for sexy times online.

The theater, according to the court, also discovered that Ryan mentioned his place of work and used his employee photo while cruising for sex online. According to the court, the theater also learned that Ryan initiated some of his solicitations while on its premises.

When Johnson found out, she wrote him a lengthy letter stating that he was being terminated not because of his “swinger lifestyle” but because he had coupled it with his employment, which the theater worried had the the potential to alienate potential donors. According to the court, Ryan admitted to posting to Craigslist looking for sex, but denied that he linked it to the theater.

Freshly unemployed, Ryan started an invective-filled blog against the theater. He also obtained the domain names “spokanecivictheater.org” and “spokanecivictheatre.org.” According to the court, Ryan used his Internet presence to stymie the future job prospects of Johnson.

In 2013, Johnson responded by filing a suit against Ryan for intentional interference with business expectancy and defamation. Ryan got the motion dismissed using an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) defense.

Many states, including Washington, have anti-SLAPP laws that are designed to prevent libel, slander or interference-with-business lawsuits that are designed to stymie free speech regarding issues of public concern.

However, the appeals court ruled that Ryan’s blogging activities were of a personal, not public concern, and reversed the lower court’s dismissal.

(Clarification: Polyamory and swinging are not the same thing. Swingers are couples seeking seeking sexual relationships with other individuals that aren’t emotional or romantic in nature. Polyamorists seek relationships that are also romantic or emotional in nature.)