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Court protects newsletter publishers from SLAPP suit

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Libel         Dec 14, 2000    

Court protects newsletter publishers from SLAPP suit

  • Despite the fact that a newsletter did not offering a balanced editorial view, a California appeals court said the publication provided residents with a public forum for differing opinions.

The dismissal of a defamation claim was upheld by a California appellate court on Dec. 13 giving a victory to a group who publish a newsletter for a residential community of seniors.

The California Court of Appeal in San Diego called the libel suit meritless and said the association manager brought it only to “chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition in connection with a public issue.”

Dennis Damon sued the Ocean Hills Journalism Club and several members of the Ocean Hills Homeowners Association after articles critical of his management of the association appeared in the club’s newsletter, The Village Voice. Damon managed the association between 1996 and 1998.

The court ruled that Damon’s complaint came within the ambit of the anti-SLAPP statute, an acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” The statute provides for the quick dismissal of cases which are without merit and effectively stifle free speech.

The court said the lawsuit concerned statements “made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest.” The court ruled that the newsletter and the board meetings were public forums because they were accessible by board members and offered opportunities for opposing viewpoints.

Damon argued that the newsletter was one-sided and did not offer varied viewpoints. The court said the newsletter “was a public forum in the sense that it was a vehicle for communicating a message about public matters to a large and interested community.”

“Although the Village Voice newsletter may not have offered a ‘balanced’ view, the Association’s other newsletter — the Board’s official newsletter — was the place where Association members with differing viewpoints could express their opposing views,” the court stated. “It is in this marketplace of ideas that the Village Voice served a very public communicative purpose promoting open discussion — a purpose analogous to a public forum.”

The court allowed this broad approach to the definition of a public forum, despite two previous California rulings which did not provide that newspapers were public forums.

The court also ruled that Damon failed to show a probability that he would prevail on the merits of his case.

(Damon v. Ocean Hills Journalism Club) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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