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Bubba wins defamation trial, declares First Amendment victory

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:12 AM
TAMPA -

WhatBubba the Love Sponge Clem said about Todd "MJ Kelli" Schnitt on his radio show may have been crude, rude and obnoxious.

But, as far as a Hillsborough County jury is concerned, the comments also were protected by the First Amendment.

Jurors took less than three hours Wednesday to deliver a verdict in Clem's favor and against Schnitt, who had filed a defamation suit against his radio rival.

The jury answered "no" 48 times on questions of whether Clem or Bubba Radio Network defamed Schnitt or his wife, Michelle. The questions covered numerous statements made by Clem, including when he called Michelle Schnitt a whore.

"The First Amendment prevailed today," the jubilant Clem told reporters after the verdict. "And you know, as unpopular as my speech is at times, it's necessary. It's necessary for me, it's necessary for you guys. You guys right here that are covering me right now, if this would have gone through, there would have been a slippery slope."

Clem rattled off a list of reporters and radio personalities he said would have been hurt if he had lost the case, including, "Todd Schnitt himself."

"You know it's idiotic in the fact that he has to eat his own logic. If this would have gone through, he would have had to watch out about calling Barack Obama names, things like that.''

The Schnitts left court without talking to reporters. Their lawyer, Phil Campbell said only, "I'm disappointed."

Although jurors also left without commenting, Alana Wilshire, an alternate juror who was dismissed before deliberations began, told reporters she thought Schnitt "should put on his big girl panties and get over it. This is a waste of taxpayer money. I wouldn't give him a dime."

Clem and his lawyer, Joseph Diaco, said they had offered to settle the case when the trial seemed to be going in their favor. Diaco said they offered to let both sides walk away, assuming responsibility for their own legal fees, but the offer was rejected. So Diaco said Clem will "absolutely" ask the judge to order Schnitt to pay his fees.

When asked how much that was, Diao demurred, but Clem said, "millions."

Diaco, told jurors in closing arguments that when Clem called Michelle Schnitt a whore, he was just goading Todd Schnitt in their ratings war.

"Remember, these are two guys with huge egos," Diaco said. "This is a locker room callout. 'I'm calling your wife a whore,' the most disrespectful thing you can say to a man with an ego as big as Mr. Schnitt's. He wanted him to engage in the radio war… Highly inflammatory and offensive words are not defamatory."

Context, Diaco said, is important. "No one goes to the Bubba the Love Sponge morning show to learn an objective fact," he added. "It's an entertainment show. It's a farce."

Campbell, Schnitt's lawyer, urged jurors to compensate the Schnitts for what he said were months and years of humiliation, hurt feelings and shame caused by Clem and his listeners.

Campbell said the First Amendment doesn't apply in these circumstances.

"The First Amendment doesn't protect this kind of speech," Campbell said. "It doesn't protect outright lies … It doesn't give us the right to hurt somebody through lies and innuendos."

Campbell said Clem taunted the couple, suggesting Michelle Schnitt was an "unchaste woman" and making them unable to leave their home without the fear of being accosted.

Clem "felt compelled to tell his audience of 400,000 one lie after another," Campbell said.

Schnitt's lawsuit alleges Clem and his Bubba Radio Network incited his fans, known as "Bubba's Army," to harass the family.

But Wilshire, the alternative juror, said Schnitt needed to get over it.

"I think anybody that runs and cries and hides in their house because someone calls them a name kind of needs to grow up, you know, develop a thicker skin, especially if you're in the public eye," she said, referring to Schnitt. "I'm a nurse and I have a thicker skin than that."

The verdict came come after nine days of testimony spanning nearly three weeks in a case that may be remembered more for the drama outside the jury's view.

The DUI arrest of Campbell created a trial within a trial. Campbell was pulled over after a paralegal for Adams & Diaco, the firm representing Clem, bought him drinks at Malio's.

Schnitt's legal team cried foul, saying it was a setup.

After the verdict, Diaco said the verdict was "pure," and that the dustup was "a circus sideshow that had nothing to do with the case."

For his part, Clem, calling himself "the people's hammer," vowed he will not change his rhetoric as a result of the case.

During the trial, Schnitt complained about Clem talking about wanting to see Schnitt dead and having a funeral in the street – something Clem's lawyers said was a theatrical radio gimmick created by Howard Stern.

With supporters cheering him on, Clem told reporters he's going to make it happen now.

"I will have the biggest MJ Kelli funeral in the streets," he said, "and I'm going to ask my good friend Howard Stern to preside over it, OK? … I'm going to do it right in the streets of St. Petersburg, probably. That's where I'm from. And we're going to have a kickass party. We're going to hang MJ in effigy; we're going to have a casket out there¸ the whole nine yards … I've only just begun. Listen to the show tomorrow morning. We're going to have all kinds of fun and games. Jokes, my friends. Jokes."


esilvestrini@tampatrib.com


(813) 259-7837


Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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