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Press groups urge dismissal of defamation claim against Palisades News

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Update Oct. 7, 2019: The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division One, reversed the trial court’s denial of Palisades News’ anti-SLAPP motion. The court of appeal held that the trial court erred in concluding that the plaintiff, Smith, was not required to show that Palisades News acted with actual malice to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on her defamation claim. It reversed and remanded the matter to the trial court with instructions to grant the Palisades News’ anti-SLAPP motion. Read the court’s opinion.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 21 media organizations are urging the California Court of Appeals to dismiss a defamation claim against the Palisades News.

The Palisades News reported — in part based on other news outlets’ coverage — on police raids at Stephanie Smith’s home and warehouses in Dec. 2017 during a marijuana investigation. In response, Smith sued the Palisades News for defamation and other claims, arguing that the article identified her as a cannabis operator, rather than a landlord who rents to cannabis operators.

The news media coalition argued, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on April 18, that the appeals court should recognize both the neutral reportage doctrine and the wire service defense in this case, and hold that the trial court erred in refusing to dismiss the defamation claim.

The neutral reportage defense protects news organizations from liability if they are relying on credible sources when reporting on public figures and events of public interest, even when some factual details are in dispute. Because the Palisades News article detailed police raids on a local public figure’s home and business properties, under the doctrine, the raids are newsworthy, especially considering the public’s interest in legalization of cannabis and its effect on local communities, the media coalition argued.

“Local newspapers play a vital role in our democracy by helping to shape robust, informed communities,” the media coalition wrote in the brief. “To protect the First Amendment, and to safeguard this vital part of the First Amendment’s role in ensuring the ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ discussion of public issues, this Court should recognize the neutral reportage doctrine and protect news organizations, like Palisades News, from liability arising from the accurate and disinterested republication of newsworthy statements involving public figures.”

The coalition also urged the court to recognize that a news outlet does not act negligently when it republishes a news item from a reputable news service — which news organizations frequently do with wire services. This is particularly important for small news outlets who may not have the resources to independently verify every news story based on a reputable news source. News organizations, like the Palisades News, should be able to report the news obtained from reputable sources “at the moment it is most newsworthy,” the coalition argues.

“The wire service defense assures newsrooms that they may inform the public as news breaks, without having to go through the lengthy process of verifying each and every source that a reputable news source has already reported on,” the coalition argues in the brief. “Individually verifying the information from these sources would unnecessarily monopolize a newsroom ‘s resources and hamper their ability to inform the public.”

View the full brief, which was written jointly by attorneys from the Reporters Committee and attorneys from Davis, Wright, Tremaine LLP.