(EXCERPT for educational research)
Quote: "The articles also reported the allegations of a former student, Alan Steele, who said that More coerced students into prostitution and provided them with LSD and other illegal drugs".
Lafayette Morehouse, Inc. v. The Chronicle Publishing Co. (“Morehouse I”)
Cite as: 37 Cal.App.4th 855, 44 Cal.Rptr.2d 46
LAFAYETTE MOREHOUSE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs/Appellants,
The CHRONICLE PUBLISHING COMPANY et al., Defendants/Respondents.
California Court of Appeal, First District, Division 5.
Aug. 9, 1995.
Richard W. Hyland, Lafayette, Walter P. Maksym, Walter Maksym & Associates, Oak Brook, IL, for appellants.
James M. Wagstaffe, Mark L. Tuft, Cooper, White & Cooper, San Francisco, for respondents.
PETERSON, Presiding Justice.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
This appeal arises from the trial court’s decision to dismiss a libel complaint filed by More University and several affiliated persons and entities, against the company which publishes the San Francisco Chronicle and several of its reporters.
More University was founded in the late 1960?s as an outgrowth of the alternative living experiments of the time. Located near Lafayette, [FN2] the university describes itself as a “unique” institution, which was established to “expand the physical, spiritual, and intellectual capacities” of its students, while maintaining “tolerance for all apparent alien encounters.” The university offers courses in a variety of traditional disciplines such as art, music, and philosophy. However, the university also offers somewhat unique degrees in the areas of “sensuality,” “lifestyles,” and “communication.” Students studying in these latter disciplines take courses in areas such as “niceness & meanness,” “teasing,” “sensuality,” and “mutual pleasurable stimulation of the human nervous system.” Through study and course work (both in class and at home), students can obtain advanced degrees in these fields, such as a Ph.D. in “sensuality.”
FN2. We say that More is located near Lafayette; however, it is not clear whether this is technically true. More admits that it formerly occupied the Lafayette site, but it contends that it does not currently operate there. More’s college catalogue, however, continues to represent that classes are offered at the Lafayette site. We need not resolve the ambiguity to decide this appeal.
In early 1992, persons living on the More University property permitted a large number of homeless to live in tents on the site. This influx caused a corresponding increase of complaints from neighbors who alleged they were subjected to the annoying and sometimes criminal behavior of these new residents. Store owners experienced a sharp increase in the number of aggressive panhandlers and persons harassing their customers. Homeowners reported cases of public urination and public intoxication. Other homeowners complained of an increase in litter and petty crime. A local police lieutenant reported a “significant” increase in the number of problems related to the More University property including felony assaults, panhandling, and abandoned vehicles in residential and commercial areas.The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors responded to these and other complaints by holding a series of public hearings beginning in May 1992, to discuss whether this use of the More University property violated local health, land use, or other governmental regulations. As a result of those hearings, the board of supervisors determined that permits were needed since the activities violated local zoning laws. When More University officials refused to comply with the permit process or to cease the challenged activity, the county filed an action in state court to enjoin the alleged violations. More and various related entities responded by filing their own civil rights suit in federal court alleging the county’s enforcement action violated their right to free expression and privacy.
Beginning in June 1992, the San Francisco Chronicle published a series of articles which described the dispute we have set forth above. The articles reported the influx of homeless living at the More University site and the corresponding increase in complaints from neighbors. The articles also discussed the board hearings which were held to discuss the problem, the county’s enforcement action, and the university’s complaint in federal court.
The reporters who wrote the articles sometimes used colorful language in describing the dispute and the parties, e.g., characterizing More as a “sensuality school” and stating that it offered a “unique course in carnal knowledge.” In addition, the articles characterized Victor Baranco, the founder of More, as a “reclusive guru” and accurately reported that he and his wife Cynthia were the subject of an LSD drug prosecution in Hawaii.
The articles also reported the allegations of a former student, Alan Steele, who said that More coerced students into prostitution and provided them with LSD and other illegal drugs. Furthermore, the article accurately reported that More had filed a libel suit against Steele arising from his allegations.
More and various other persons and entities who were mentioned in the articles filed a complaint against the Chronicle and the reporters who wrote them. [FN3] As eventually amended, the complaint alleged seven causes of action, however, only one of them is relevant on the present appeal. More alleged that the newspaper articles were libelous.
FN3. The complaint names as plaintiffs Lafayette Morehouse, Inc., which does business as More University; Dr. Victor Baranco; Dr. Cynthia Baranco; and three additional corporate entities, Humore, Inc., the Private Sector, Inc., and Turn on to America, Inc. The latter three corporations are apparently affiliated with More and helped provide assistance to the homeless living on the More University property. Two of them, the Private Sector, Inc., and Turn on to America, Inc., were mentioned in the articles in question.The named defendants were the Chronicle Publishing Company, the entity which publishes the Chronicle; and the reporters who wrote the articles, Dan Reed, April Lynch, and Alice Kahn.
Unless otherwise indicated, we will refer to the plaintiffs collectively as More and to the defendants as the Chronicle.
The Chronicle responded to the complaint by filing a special motion to strike under section 425.16. [FN4] Consistent with the language in that section, the Chronicle argued that More could not establish there was a probability it would prevail on the complaint because, among other things, the articles were neither false nor defamatory. After hearing and argument, the trial court agreed and granted the special motion to strike, ruling that More had failed to present proof of falsity.
FN4. Section 425.16 provides in pertinent part as follows: “(b) A cause of action against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim. In making its determination, the court shall consider the pleadings, and supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts upon which the liability or defense is based.[P] … [P] (e) As used in this section, ‘act in furtherance of a person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue’ includes any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; any written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; or any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest.”
More then asked the court to reconsider its ruling, and it filed numerous declarations in support of its request. After argument, the court denied the motion, finding that More had failed to present evidence of falsity, and that it had not presented a prima facie case of actual malice. This appeal followed.
Furthermore, More’s arguments are unconvincing in any event. For example, More argues it was libeled when an article stated that it offered a “unique course in carnal knowledge.” However, truth is a defense to a libel suit (5 Witkin, Summary of Cal.Law (9th ed. 1988) Torts, s 494, p. 583; see also Aisenson v. American Broadcasting Co. (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 146, 154, 269 Cal.Rptr. 379), and the article’s statement was undeniably true. More’s general catalogue shows it offers courses in “Advanced Sensuality” and “Mutual Pleasurable Stimulation of the Human Nervous System.” Even a cursory glance at the content of these courses shows the essential accuracy of the Chronicle’s characterization. [FN6]
FN6. More’s course description for the “Advanced Sensuality” class explains that “Students work with partners” and do “research and experimentation” in the areas of “engorgement, lubrication, seminal secretion.” The outline for the class in “Mutual Pleasurable Stimulation of the Human Nervous System” (which is limited to married couples and consenting adults) states that students will examine “partner exchange, emotional involvement related to sexing and oral-genital relationships.” The outline further explains that the successful student will be required to “come undeniably every day,” and that one of the goals of the course is to “make friends with another crotch.” The outline also cautions students to bring “small hand towels, and lubricant, plus latex gloves” to class. To obtain a doctorate in sensuality, a male student “must demonstrate how to take control of a woman’s level of tumescence sn a laboratory setting under the direct supervision of the faculty of the Sensuality Department.” A female student “must demonstrate, for one hour, her ability to respond to the direct control of her level of tumescence at the hands of a certified partner in the laboratory setting.”
More also argues it was libeled when the Chronicle described it as a “sensuality school.” However, it is undisputed that More offers an advanced degree in “sensuality” and that many of its courses have an explicitly sexual theme. Since the substance and gist of the characterization is true, any minor inaccuracy cannot be deemed libelous. (Heuer v. Kee (1936) 15 Cal.App.2d 710, 714, 59 P.2d 1063.)More contends that its founder, Victor Baranco, was libeled when the Chronicle described him as a “reclusive guru.” However, a statement cannot be deemed libelous unless it conveys to the recipient a provably false assertion of fact. (San Francisco Bay Guardian, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 655, 659, 21 Cal.Rptr.2d 464.) The term, as used in the articles in question, was not capable of being proven true or false.
More also contends it was libeled because the Chronicle reported that a former student, Alan Steele, had alleged the school was engaged in questionable and illegal activity. However, More itself sued Steele for libel because of his allegations, and the Chronicle simply reported the same facts contained in the libel suit. A “fair and true” report of a judicial proceeding is absolutely privileged. (Civ.Code, s 47, subd. (d).) More’s briefs on appeal do not even attempt to explain why this privilege is inapplicable.
We conclude More has not met its appellate burden of showing error. The trial court properly granted the motion under section 425.16.
III. DISPOSITIONThe judgment is affirmed.
KING and HANING, JJ., concur.
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 06/20/2014 01:28AM by The Anticult.