BYU professor pushes back on allegations of defamation from Utah Lake developers

On the windy shores of Utah Lake Tuesday, community members met to decry a recent lawsuit filed by Lake Restoration Solutions alleging one of the company’s most vocal critics made defamatory remarks about its proposal to dredge the lake.

The meeting came just hours after attorneys for Ben Abbott, associate professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University, filed an anti-SLAPP statement and counterclaim.

The driving sentiment during the media event this week — and an argument used in the counterclaim filed by Abbott’s lawyers — is that the lawsuit violates the First Amendment.

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“It really comes down to one point that needs to be reiterated here: the freedom of speech,” said Abbott’s attorney, Whitney Krogue.

“Essentially, they are trying to get Professor Abbott to stop talking, to stop saying derogatory comments about them and about their project. ... What Professor Abbott said is fully protected whether he was right or wrong. The marketplace of ideas is sometimes pesky. It sometimes causes people to have hurt feelings,” she went on to say.

However, representatives for Lake Restoration Solutions said in a statement that it’s not their intention to silence opposition to the project, and that they in fact welcome public feedback.

“We do not ask him to stop participating in the public process or sharing his criticisms and opinions about the Project. ... He has every right to do so, and we have no desire to prevent him from exercising that right. The complaint focuses solely on his defamatory and false statements,” the company said.

Lake Restoration Solutions is behind a sweeping proposal they say will combat the toxic algal blooms, invasive plants and fish, and the increasing demand for water from rapidly expanding Utah County, all contributing to the lake’s declining health.

Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, speaks at a press conference on the shores of Utah Lake in Lindon on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. The press conference was held in response to a $3 million lawsuit filed by Lake Restorations Solutions, a company proposing to build islands on Utah Lake, against Abbott for his comments about the project. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The privately funded, $6 billion-plus Utah Lake Restoration Project would deepen the lake on average by 7 feet, and the dredged material would be used to create human-made islands, some for development, recreation and wildlife.

A deeper lake, the company says, means a healthier lake, with cooler temperatures and less algal blooms.

But the project was met with pushback from local environmental groups and scientists, who signed onto a petition to amend HB272, a 2018 bill that effectively allows the state to hand over sections of the lakebed (which will then be turned into islands) if certain conditions are met.

Abbott was a leading voice behind the petition, speaking out against the proposal at city council meetings, on his Twitter and Facebook accounts and his own personal blog. Lake Restoration Solutions is now arguing some of those statements were defamatory.

“Simply put, the law does not support Mr. Abbott’s unethical and unlawful behavior,” the company said in a statement.

In a Deseret News opinion piece, company president Jon Benson pushed back on claims that Lake Restoration Solutions had filed a SLAPP suit. “This is simply not true, as the legal process will prove,” he wrote.

SLAPP refers to a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

But in the counterclaim filed Tuesday, Abbott’s lawyers argue that he was participating in the process of government, which is protected under the narrow definition of Utah’s anti-SLAPP law.

Lawyers for Abbott say he “sought to influence decision-making at the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands, the Office of the Governor, the Utah County Commission, city council members and other decision-makers in Utah Valley, and state legislators,” a tactic they say is a “process of government.”

They also dispute the allegations that Abbott’s statements — including his claim that Lake Restoration Solutions benefits from “shady foreign funding” and has “no scientists on its team” — are defamatory.

Whit Krogue, an attorney with Ray, Quinney & Nebeker, speaks at a press conference on the shores of Utah Lake in Lindon on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. The press conference was held in response to a $3 million lawsuit filed by Lake Restorations Solutions, a company proposing to build islands on Utah Lake, against Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, for his comments about the project. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News