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Calif. appellate court affirms dismissal of libel suit against Gawker under state's anti-SLAPP law

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A California appellate court upheld the dismissal of a libel suit brought by the head of a small startup tech…

A California appellate court upheld the dismissal of a libel suit brought by the head of a small startup tech company against the Internet blogging company Gawker Media.

The California Court of Appeal in San Francisco (1st Dist.) affirmed a Superior Court’s ruling granting Gawker’s special motion to strike Redmond’s defamation suit under the state’s anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (“SLAPP”) statute. This law, first enacted in 1992, aims to prevent the chilling effects on speech caused by suits intending to censor, intimidate or silence critics.

The appellate court’s opinion stems from a Jan. 13, 2011 commentary published on one of Gawker’s technology weblogs, Gizmodo, concerning Scott Redmond, CEO of Peep Wireless Telephony Company. The article, entitled “Smoke & Mirrors: The Greatest Scam in Tech,” criticized Redmond and questioned several of his past business pursuits.

In affirming the state trial court’s decision, the California appellate court concluded that the Gizmodo blog item constituted speech on a matter of public concern that fell within the scope of the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. Associate Justice Sandra Lynn Margulies specifically noted in her opinion Redmond’s efforts at seeking publicity for his Peep venture through company press releases, availability for press interviews and efforts to promote his ideas through Internet media.

“He cannot now plausibly maintain there was no public interest in whether the claims were credible,” Margulies wrote. She went on to conclude that the blog posting, considered in context — with its casual tone, numerous links to source material forming the basis for their piece and “qualifying language” — “constituted protected opinion and cannot provide the basis for a successful libel suit.”

Rachel Matteo-Boehm, Gawker's attorney, said the appellate court's decision makes clear that the protection state courts give to opinions extend beyond just the printed page.

"The Internet provides that opportunity (for writers) to convey one's opinion outside the four corners of the printed page," she said. "Now they have an unlimited space to provide information that lets readers reach their own conclusion."

In the Gizmodo article, authors John Herrman and Adrian Covert questioned the feasibility of Redmond’s product claims and provide several links throughout their piece to Redmond’s various websites and online video clips promoting his products.

“Peep Wireless is just the latest in a string of seemingly failed tech startups that spans back about two decades, all conceived, helmed and seemingly driven into the ground by one man: Scott Redmond,” Herrman and Covert wrote. “We‘ve done a bit of digging into the Peep CEO’s past projects, and they don’t give us much faith in his current endeavor, to say the least.”

After publication, Redmond contacted Gizmodo to complain about the blog, according to the appellate court opinion, and provided an e-mail response to many of the assertions in the piece which was later posted on Gizmodo’s Web site. Redmond filed suit after Gizmodo editors declined his subsequent request to remove both the original piece and his e-mail from the website.

In arguing for dismissal of Redmond’s libel suit, Gawker argued that: the article was protected speech in connection with a public issue; the statements were opinions that could not support a libel action; and Redmond was a limited-purpose public figure who could not prove Gizmodo published the blog piece about Redmond with “actual malice.”

Redmond, who represented himself in the civil suit, said he couldn’t comment on the appellate court’s decision because he hadn’t yet read the opinion.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Defining “actual malice”

· SLAPP Stick: Fighting frivolous lawsuits against journalists: California