FROM BARBARA WARTELLE WALL: LEGAL WATCH CALIFORNIA ANTI-SLAPP STATUTE HELPS
S.F. CHRONICLE FIGHT LIBEL SUIT
A California Appeals Court has ruled that members of the media are protected
by a California statute designed to deter and punish litigants who bring
defamation actions to chill speech. Under the law, which enabled the San
Francisco Chronicle to win early dismissal of a libel suit, the plaintiff
could be forced to pay the newspaper's attorney's fees. (Lafayette
Morehouse, Inc. v. The Chronicle Publishing Co., August 9, 1995).
The case arose after the Chronicle published several articles describing a
controversy involving a local university that describes itself as a
"sensuality school" and offers a Ph.D. in the field. The reports, labeling
the school an "academy of carnal knowledge," focused on public hearings and
lawsuits over the school's alleged violation of zoning laws by allowing a
tent city for the homeless on its property.
When the university instituted a libel action, the Chronicle moved to strike
down the suit under a 1992 law aimed at curbing so-called "SLAPP" suits --
legal actions aimed at quelling speech on controversial issues. Under the
anti-SLAPP law, a libel defendant can bring a special dismissal motion early
in proceedings if the allegedly libelous statement deals with an issue of
public importance. If the plaintiff is unable at that point to demonstrate
at least a reasonable probability of success at trial, the court can throw
out the case.
The judge in the Chronicle suit did just that, ruling that the university
had failed to show, among other things, that it had a realistic chance of
making its case on the issue of falsity.
On appeal, the university argued that the law was intended only to cover
defendants like private citizens and grassroots political advocacy groups
that are especially vulnerable to the chilling effect of costly litigation.
Wealthy media companies, they argued, can protect themselves without help
from the legislature.
The appellate court rejected the school's argument, noting that the
statute's plain language made it applicable to any suit arising from a
defendant's act "in furtherance of [its] right of . . . free speech under
the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public
The reviewing court also agreed that the university failed to demonstrate a
reasonable probability of success. For instance, the court found that the
university probably could not prove falsity with respect to the Chronicle's
statement that the school offered "a unique course in carnal knowledge." A
catalogue showed that the university offered a class entitled "Mutual
Pleasurable Stimulation of the Human Nervous System" with recommended course
materials including "small hand towels, and lubricant, plus latex gloves."
Under the SLAPP statute's attorney's fee recovery provision, the trial court
had ordered the university to pay the Chronicle more than $64,000. That
portion of the order is being appealed separately.
According to news reports, at least six anti-SLAPP cases involving media
defendants currently are being litigated in California.