On May 8, 2016, my good friend Ed Atchison died. Though Ed had a long history of health problems, his death was unexpected, with only his dog at his side.
Ed was an Army officer in Vietnam, and after his service, he became a licensed counselor at the Cheyenne VA, including becoming the director of the Cheyenne/Fort Collins Veterans Outreach Center. Later, Ed moved to Las Vegas, where he counseled vets at the largest homeless shelter in the city.
When Ed moved to Las Vegas, he became concerned with the issue of gambling addiction, or “problem gambling.” He saw how gambling can take over people’s lives and cause them to lose their savings, home, family and even their lives.
He learned that suicide is a particular problem among problem gamblers. National studies show one in six problem gamblers attempts suicide.
He was particularly concerned with the issue of problem gambler suicide in Wyoming, because Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Ed became one of the very first nationally certified gambling counselors and was the only such counselor in Wyoming.
The Wyoming Legislature approved a lottery in 2014.
The legislation required that a percentage of gambling funds be used for the prevention and treatment of problem gambling.
The legislation also created a state entity known as the Wyoming Lottery Corporation to start up and run the lottery. During the startup phase, Ed worked with the Lottery Corporation on the issue of problem gambling and provided them his unique expertise and experience. However, Ed came to believe that the Lottery Corporation was not concerned with the issue of problem gambling and was not taking steps necessary to address the problem. The relationship between Ed and the Lottery Corporation became contentious, and there was a parting of the ways.
But Ed did not give up. He continued to push executives of the Wyoming lottery, including Jon Clontz, its executive director, on the issue. It is fair to say that Ed became a thorn in the side of the Wyoming lottery. He also wrote numerous letters to the editor and was interviewed by reporters and commentators, where he expressed his belief that the Wyoming Lottery Corporation was not doing anything close to enough to address problem gambling.
And this is the point of this piece. Instead of addressing Ed’s concerns, instead of trying to work with him, instead of adequately addressing the issue of problem gambling, the state of Wyoming, through the Wyoming Lottery Corporation, sued Ed Atchison for defamation.
I represented Ed in that case. I have had a lot of experience with First Amendment cases, and I can say that I have never seen, certainly not here in Wyoming, a governmental agency suing one of its own citizens for defamation. It was and is absolutely unprecedented.
For an entity of the state of Wyoming, armed with all of the resources and power of the state, to use that power to sue a private person for being critical of the state is an absolute travesty and should cause great concern to Wyoming’s citizens. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution absolutely protects everything Ed said and did with regard to the lottery.
Yes, Ed was difficult. Yes, he pushed hard and was critical of the Wyoming Lottery Corporation. But for a state entity to sue someone for being criticized flies in the face of everything we as Americans believe about our role in our own governance and government.
Without engaging in hyperbole, what the Wyoming Lottery Corporation did, what the state of Wyoming did to Ed, is what totalitarian governments do. Totalitarian governments crush dissent, and this is what the state was trying to do, crush the dissent of Ed Atchison.
I hope that this is the last time that the state of Wyoming and its entities engage in this kind of abuse of governmental power. We all must be vigilant to ensure that it never happens again.
Tim Kingston has been a Cheyenne attorney in general practice here and throughout Wyoming for the last 23 years. He represented Ed Atchison in the lawsuit referenced in the op-ed. Email: Kingston@rockymtnlaw.com.