Friday, June 13, 2008

News-Press takes hit in libel case

BY COLBY FRAZIER
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

The California Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the Santa Barbara News-Press is not entitled to notes and other information gathered by a reporter for a December 2006 article in the American Journalism Review called, “Santa Barbara Smackdown.”
The story offered a, “behind-the-scenes look” at the “turmoil” that unraveled at the News-Press in July 2006, when six of the paper’s top editors resigned en masse.
Shortly after the story was published, News-Press owner Wendy McCaw sued the writer, Susan Paterno.

Paterno responded by filing an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) suit, the purpose of which is to prevent a person from being forced into litigation for simply exercising constitutional rights.
In this case, the court found Paterno was rightly exercising her First Amendment right to free speech, and the burden the News-Press would have to meet in order to force the writer to hand over her notes, was not met.
“Ampersand has failed to show good cause for discovery delaying Paterno’s anti-SLAPP motion,” the ruling says. “Forcing Paterno to submit to discovery in the absence of good cause jeopardizes the protections afforded by the anti-SLAPP statute against harassing litigation.”
But that’s not how the Orange County Superior Court saw it. [The original version of this story incorrectly said Orange County Supreme Court.]
The case made its way to the Appeals Court as a result of an earlier ruling by the Superior Court, which ordered Paterno to turn over notes and other materials she used to write her story.
The purpose of the Superior Court order, according to the Appeals Court ruling, was to afford the News-Press the chance to determine if three statements that appeared in Paterno’s story were made with, “actual malice.”
Those three statements dealt with the killing of a story about the drunken driving sentence of Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong, the paper’s pursuance of a restraining order against former employee Michael Todd and the slashing of benefits and overtime pay for newsroom employees.
In the case of Armstrong’s drunken driving sentence, the News-Press argued that Paterno exercised “malice” by not informing her readers that an earlier story about the editor’s arrest was published in the paper.
However, the Appeals Court said media defendants are liable for calculated falsehoods, “not for their failure to achieve some undefined level of objectivity.”
“Paterno had no constitutional obligation to incorporate Ampersand’s press releases or its talking points into her magazine article,” the ruling says. “There is no constitutional mandate requiring the press to adopt a ‘he said, she said’ style of reporting.”
The case will likely return to the Superior Court, or the News-Press could appeal the decision before the California Supreme Court.
The Appeals Court offered its two cents on how the dispute should have been handled in the first place.
“If Paterno’s statements require further explanation, Ampersand, McCaw, its lawyers, public relations experts, and crisis managers, are free to provide them,” the ruling says. “Ampersand, as the publisher of Santa Barbara’s largest circulation daily newspaper, has ample ‘access to channels of effective communication.’”
The ruling goes on to say: “The marketplace of ideas, not the tort system, is the means by which our society evaluates those opinions.”
The court also touched on the oddity of a newspaper challenging an anti-SLAPP suit, which traditionally is a means by which newspapers and journalists protect themselves.
“It is ironic that Ampersand, itself a newspaper publisher, seeks to weaken legal protections that are intended to secure the role of the press in a free society,” the ruling says. “Newspapers and publishers, who regularly face libel litigation, were intended to be one of the ‘prime beneficiaries’ of the anti-SLAPP legislation.”

1 comment:

Zenger said...

Corrections:

1. Ampersand did not sue AJR; it only sued Paterno.
2. There is no Orange County Supreme Court.
3. No "Supreme Court" has yet ruled in this case.
4. The Orange County Superior Court ruled that most of Ampersand's case was meritless, but allowed Ampersand to take discovery -- depose Paterno and get some documents -- on three alleged possibly libelous statements.
5. Paterno filed a special action called a writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal seated in Santa Ana (4th District Court of Appeal, Division 3) to challenge the superior court's ruling permitting discovery, and this ruling was the result: none of those three items that the superior court found possibly libelous could be shown actionable. That leaves Ampersand with nothing left to sue Paterno about.
6. The Court of Appeal rejected Ampersand's argument that Paterno could not write her piece with a point of view, and declared that the First Amendment protected her right to write a piece critical of the News-Press for its journalism and employment practices.
7. The News-Press doesn't like it when others criticize it, and so it sues them; hence, the reference to the irony of the News-Press getting "SLAPPed" down by a law intended to protect the media.