Local civil rights crusader sues DA over ‘racist’ remark

At his fifth consecutive swearing-in Monday, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey acknowledged that his job often required him to “suffer the slings and arrows” from defense attorneys, judges and the media. But he might have added at least one more entity, as it was reported last week that Ramsey was being sued for $500,000 by Willie J. Hyman, president of the Butte Community Coalition for Human Rights.

Hyman is suing Ramsey for defamation over remarks attributed to him in the Chico Enterprise-Record last January, when Ramsey, speaking about a racially charged murder case he was then prosecuting, was quoted as saying, “Mr. Hyman is a hypocrite; if there is a racist in this county it’s Mr. Hyman.”

Ramsey made the remarks after Hyman alleged that Reigh Ellis, a black Butte College student later convicted of killing a white Butte College student, could not get a fair trial in Butte County because of racism in the court system.

Hyman, a self-described hell-raiser who declined to comment about the suit, has become widely known in Butte County over the last quarter-century for his attempts to expose official racism and further the cause of civil rights. He has suggested to the press numerous times that certain county officials and departments, including the DA’s Office, are racist and corrupt. In 2001, Hyman told a CN&R reporter investigating another murder case—in which police misidentified two white suspects as being black—that “Cops are racist and this is the Mississippi of the North Valley.”

But, said Hyman’s lawyer, Walter L. Davis of Hayward, turnabout—in this case from Ramsey—is far from fair play, as Ramsey is an elected official and Hyman is a private citizen.

“Some may consider [Hyman] a public figure, but he is not a government official,” Davis said. “The effect is to chill his First Amendment rights. He’s criticizing the government, so the government tries to embarrass him and humiliate him into silence.”

Davis said the suit, which was filed almost nine months after the comments appeared in the paper, asks for an award of $500,000 in punitive damages for humiliation and emotional distress. Davis said he chose the amount “because I want it to hurt.”

For his part, Ramsey said he stands by his remark, calling it “a fair public comment on a public figure.

“Over the years Mr. Hyman has been very quick to call local law enforcement racist whenever the defendant is black,” he said, adding that “the judges currently on the bench will not tolerate, and this office will not tolerate, any racial bias.”

Butte County will pick up the tab for Ramsey’s legal defense, though Ramsey said he was not overly worried about the suit.

“I do not expect that his lawsuit has legs,” he said.

Ramsey was recently brought under heavy criticism for another quote the E-R attributed to him, in which he said a 16-year-old sexual assault victim had been "doing the house" before she was assaulted. Ramsey subsequently denied making the remark and still maintains the story containing it was stacked against him.