Journalists gain protection from libel suits in California

CALIFORNIA — A new law signed by Gov. Gray Davis Mondaygives journalists increased protection from libel suits when reportingon acts of violence or threats of violence on school property.

Under the law, citizens are immune from liability for defamationor slander if they communicate information to a school officialregarding the potential for physical harm to a person on schoolgrounds, provided the report was made without knowing it was falseor with reckless disregard for its accuracy.

Nothing in the law specifically mentions professional or studentmedia, but the language of the statute could protect both frompotential libel lawsuits if they reported a threat.

The bill states, "A communication by any person to a schoolprincipal, or a communication by a student attending the schoolto the student’s teacher or to a school counselor or school nurseand any report of that communication to the school principal,stating that a specific student or other specified person hasmade a threat to commit violence on the school grounds involvingthe use of a firearm or other deadly or dangerous weapon, is acommunication on a matter of public concern and is subject toliability in defamation only upon a showing by clear and convincingevidence that the communication or report was made with knowledgeof its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsityof the communication."

Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel proposed the bill (AB 1717) asa response to an incident in which a student was sued for defamationafter reporting a threat of school violence. Kristina Tapia andher parents were sued for telling administrators that anotherstudent at Quartz Hill High School said he wanted to "killpeople."

A state judge dismissed the complaint in January, but Tapiaand her parents are stuck with a $40,000 legal bill. Tapia attemptedto get the Antelope Valley Union High School District to pay thelegal expenses, but the school district refused on the premisethat it would be a gift of public funds.

The legislation is intended to prevent retaliatory lawsuitsfrom occurring in the future when circumstances similar to theTapia’s exist.