In the matter of Schifanelli v. Jourdak, a lawsuit filed by the conservative firebrand running to be Maryland’s next lieutenant governor, you can find elements of several storm fronts in America’s overheated political climate.
It starts with George Floyd and racism, and goes from there — into the skirmishes over public education and across the divide between progressives who speak truth to power and conservatives who ridicule them as the “woke.” The case addresses the use of Facebook and Twitter to stir controversy and attack ideological opponents, and it draws an instructive line between defamation and fair criticism.
The plaintiff is Gordana Schifanelli, an Eastern Shore attorney, who last year became the running mate of Dan Cox, a Frederick County attorney and state delegate, who last week became the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland. They have been endorsed by former President Donald Trump and hold extremely conservative views.
The defendant is Mary Ella Jourdak, a photographer and resident of Kent Island who was accused of harming Schifanelli’s reputation with social media comments during a controversy involving the superintendent of Queen Anne’s schools.
Background: Following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands (and knee) of police officers in Minneapolis, Andrea Kane, the Queen Anne’s superintendent, called for dialogue on racism and voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a June email to parents, Kane, the county’s first Black superintendent, mentioned instances of racism that she and her children had experienced. She wrote that “racism is alive in our country, our state, in Queen Anne’s County, and our schools.” Quoting a sociologist, Kane urged people to “stop challenging Black Lives Matter, as it only exacerbates the marginalization.”
Some parents were ticked off by the letter. One of them was Schifanelli, who formed a Facebook group, Kent Island Patriots, as a forum for criticism of the superintendent.
In an interview with The Sun, Schifanelli said Kane’s comments were misguided because mostly rural, mostly white Queen Anne’s “has no significant problem with racial hatred.” Opposing Kane, Schifanelli said, amounted to opposing “the radical indoctrination of children in our schools.”
With calls for Kane’s resignation, Queen Anne’s suddenly had a public school battle similar to those that have raged across the country as conservative parents see the devil in classroom discussions of historic and contemporary racism. In her campaign with Cox, Schifanelli, who emigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, says, “I have seen the evils of communism unfold before my eyes. … I am watching the same evil creeping into our schools and communities.”
Schifanelli’s criticisms of Kane, who later resigned as superintendent, did not go unanswered. Jourdak was among those who responded. She is a Chester resident and member of a group called the Sunday Supper Community, described on its Facebook page as “dedicated to supporting the initiatives of the Queen Anne’s Co. Equity Committee …. We foster a safe, productive and educational space for conversations on race and equity.”
Jourdak noted that Schifanelli was an adjunct faculty member at the U.S. Naval Academy and, according to a court document filed in her defense, “was troubled that Ms. Schifanelli would foster social media speech that seemed overtly racist while simultaneously holding a position at the Naval Academy, which openly expresses its commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Jourdak tweeted comments about Schifanelli that included screenshots of content she and other members of the Kent Island Patriots had posted on Facebook.
Some of those tweets were doctored, Schifanelli claimed, and her lawsuit argued that Jourdak’s tweets were intended to deprive Schifanelli of her position at the academy.
With her husband, Marc, serving as counsel, Schifanelli sued for $750,000 in damages, claiming Jourdak conspired to harm her reputation and cause her emotional distress.
Stacie Tobin, the defense attorney, countered that Schifanelli had become a public figure by inserting herself into the Kane controversy, and that her client’s tweets were protected as fair comment on a matter of public interest.
The case went to trial before Judge C. Lynn Knight last week, just as Schifanelli learned that she and Cox had won the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary.
According to a court document, the judge found insufficient evidence of emotional distress. She found that some Jourdak statements were not defamatory and that others were protected as fair comment. For its part, the jury found that, while one of her derogatory statements was false, Jourdak did not know it was a falsehood at the time and, thus, she was not liable.
That’s a win for Jourdak.
Except Schifanelli’s husband wants a new trial and has already filed a motion seeking one.
“The jury found that Mary Jourdak published a false and defamatory statement about Ms. Schifanelli in 2020,” Marc Schifanelli insists. “However, the judge erroneously granted Jourdak ‘fair comment’ protection, and because of that, the jury was not able to award damages to Ms. Schifanelli. The error has been pointed out to the court and a new trial requested on the issue of damages only since the jury found Jourdak’s comments to be defamatory.”
Of course, that’s not how Jourdak’s side sees it at all, so, for now, the story doesn’t end here.
While the lawyers continue to argue the law, I’ll just offer this: If you’re going to lead a public attack against the “woke,” then parlay it into a high-profile political candidacy, try toughening up and taking the heat. As Trump supporters say: No snowflakes.