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Ukraine Relief v. Gurzhiy

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Court: Court of Appeal of the State of California, Third Appellate District

Date Filed: Sept. 28, 2020

Update: On Nov. 8, 2021, the California Court of Appeal issued a ruling reversing in part and affirming in part the trial court’s order on Gurzihy’s anti-SLAPP motion. The Court of Appeal “reject[ed] arguments by Gurzhiy and amici curiae that the retraction statute applies to bar plaintiffs’ claims except for special damages” because the “record does not show that The Slavic Sacramento constitutes a daily or weekly publication[.]” Gurzihy then asked the California Supreme Court to review the case. And on Jan. 20, 2022, the Reporters Committee and 12 media organizations filed a letter in support of Gurzihy’s Supreme Court petition, arguing that the Court of Appeal erred in finding that The Slavic Sacramento did not show it is a “weekly news publication” within the meaning of the state’s retraction statute. The letter also argued that the Court of Appeal’s holding undermines the ability of local and foreign language news outlets to avail themselves of the statute’s protections.

Background: In 2018, Ukraine Relief, a nonprofit charity, and other companies and individuals sued Ruslan Gurzhiy, the publisher of The Slavic Sacramento, claiming that the online Russian-language news site published three defamatory articles about the plaintiffs’ alleged misuse of humanitarian aid donations intended for Ukrainians.

Gurzhiy filed a motion to strike the lawsuit under the California anti-SLAPP law, which the trial court granted in part and denied in part. As one of the reasons that his motion to strike should be granted, Gurzhiy argued that the California retraction statute barred all of the plaintiffs’ claims against him. Under California’s retraction statute, plaintiffs can only recover special damages for economic losses from a “daily or weekly news publication” unless they request a correction of the alleged defamatory statements, and one is not published. Since the plaintiffs in this case did not request a correction or plead special damages, Gurzhiy argued that their claims were barred.

In support of his claim that The Slavic Sacramento publishes on a weekly basis, Gurzhiy submitted a declaration stating that the news site publishes two to five articles a week. However, the trial court held that the retraction law does not apply to The Slavic Sacramento because Gurzhiy failed to prove that it publishes news “at least once a week.”

Gurzhiy has appealed to the California Court of Appeal.

Our Position: The Court of Appeal should reverse the trial court’s denial in part of Gurzhiy’s motion to strike because the California retraction statute does apply to The Slavic Sacramento and bars the plaintiffs’ claims.

  • In 2015, the California Legislature amended the retraction statute to apply to weekly online publications such as The Slavic Sacramento.
  • The trial court erred in holding that Guzhiy’s uncontroverted declaration stating that The Slavic Sacramento publishes two to five articles a week is insufficient proof that it is a “weekly news publication” within the meaning of the retraction statute.

Quote: “[T]he trial court’s conclusion that Gurzhiy’s declaration was insufficient, if upheld, could significantly burden news publications seeking to invoke the California Retraction Statute, especially smaller, independent, and foreign language news outlets.”

Related: Anti-SLAPP laws, which aim to discourage the filing of frivolous libel lawsuits, vary from state to state. The Reporters Committee monitors the state of anti-SLAPP laws and related court cases across the country. To learn more about our work in this area and see what SLAPP protections look like in your state, check out our Anti-SLAPP Legal Guide.

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