Late last week, a California state appeals court denied the discovery motion of Ampersand Press, the corporate owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, clearing the way for a trial court to dismiss its libel claim against American Journalism Review writer Susan Paterno.
The court held that Ampersand failed to demonstrate that any of Paterno’s allegedly defamatory statements were provably false factual assertions, and so “no good cause exists to conduct discovery concerning actual malice.” The order will allow the trial court to turn its attention to Paterno’s motion to dismiss the suit under California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
“This a complete and total vindication of Susan’s reporting and a ringing endorsement of the press’ watchdog function,” said Charles D. Tobin, Paterno’s attorney. “We’re gratified that this will be helpful precedent in future meritless cases.”
In 2006, Paterno wrote an article examining the turmoil and strife at the News-Press which ultimately led to the dismissal or resignation of more than half of its news staff.
The article also described News-Press publisher Wendy McCaw’s efforts to silence criticism by filing libel suits.
True to Paterno’s words, McCaw subsequently filed suit against her in her personal capacity, thereby imposing on her the heavy burden of shouldering both the cost of any legal fees incurred while defending the suit but also any damages that may have been awarded.
The Santa Barbara Independent reported that AJR offered to pay for Paterno’s legal costs.
After the trial court dismissed Ampersand’s claim on 29 of the 32 allegedly libelous statements, it allowed further discovery on the remaining three statements. The appellate court found no reason to continue with discovery simply because Paterno did not provide Ampersand’s perspective regarding those last three libelous statements.
Ampersand now has until the end of July to appeal the decision to the state supreme court. If it does not, Tobin believes the ruling is the beginning of the for the publisher.
“The Court of Appeals has said that the three statements are not actionable,” Tobin said. “We don’t see any action here but the grant of our SLAPP (motion), the dismissal of the lawsuit and the grant of legal fees.”
The ruling is the latest in the dispute, which featured a newspaper publisher taking the bizarre tack of seeking to limit the state’s anti-SLAPP law.
“It’s the quintessential ‘glass houses’ scenario and the court readily understood that,” Tobin said. “What perverse irony that a newspaper publisher would challenge the expression of someone’s opinion as defamatory!”