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Flathead couple file defamation suit

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POLSON, Mont. - A mixed-race couple living on the Flathead Indian Reservation has filed a defamation suit against the Montana Human Rights Network over a report the group issued earlier this year on anti-tribal organizing

Roland and Lisa Morris, who have both been heavily involved with the group All Citizens Equal (ACE), allege the network libeled them by asserting they are "anti-Indian" and are leaders in an "anti-Indian movement." The report, written by MHRN program director Ken Toole and Christine Kaufmann, the group's research and policy director, contends the movement "is racist at its core."

Case documents, filed in Montana's 20th District Court in Polson, show that Roland Morris is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota. While his wife is not an American Indian, their five children also belong to the tribe, court documents say.

The report, which tracked anti-tribal organizing in Montana for the past 20 years, includes a history of ACE, the Citizen's Equal Rights Alliance, and an assortment of other similar organizations with regional and national interconnections.

One section focused on the Morrises and the fact they've fought against a variety of tribal initiatives, especially those raised by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Roland Morris was listed as ACE president in 1997. Documents show Lisa Morris has also served on the group's board of directors.

ACE is an outgrowth of Flathead Residents Earning Equality, which sprouted on the reservation in the early 1970s. The organization, which has fought the Salish and Kootenai government on a wide variety of fronts, later changed its name to Montanans Opposing Discrimination. The group became ACE in the early 1980s.

Publication in the network's report that the Morrises "are racist has exposed them to hatred, contempt, ridicule, disgrace or obloquy and has caused them, separately and together, to be shunned and avoided, and has tended to injure them in their occupation," the suit alleges. The couple is represented by Helena attorney Jon Metropoulos, who also represents the Flathead Joint Board of Control, the Flathead Reservation's largest group of irrigators.

Toole notes that the Morrises were given a draft copy of the report and were asked to review it before it was printed. The couple replied in a letter that there were "numerous factual errors" in the draft, but declined to specify what they were.

"I would suggest you publish it only after you correct those errors and the equally incorrect assumptions and conclusions," the Morris letter says. "It is your responsibility to ensure the accuracy of your reports."

"Overall, I think the report is very well-researched," Toole says. "The Morrises are mad about our opinions, but we have a right to express those opinions."