Calif. judge cites anti-SLAPP law in dismissal of libel suit against student newspaper

A libel case against a student newspaper was thrown out of a California Superior Court recently when the judge ruled the case fell under the auspices of a state law that protects free speech.

The Lompoc Unified School District and journalism teacher Suzanne Nicastro filed a motion to dismiss a suit brought by a local family under the anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute.

California’s law was created in 1992 as a response to an increasing number of lawsuits designed to silence protected acts of expression about matters of public concern. It provides that any legal action arising from an act of free speech can be dismissed, on a special motion, if the judge believes the lawsuit was brought primarily to chill free speech and he or she thinks the plaintiff is not likely to win the case. The statute also renders the plaintiff responsible for attorney fees if the anti-SLAPP motion is granted.

Jerry and Barbara Reyes filed suit last year after the Fore and Aft, the student newspaper at Cabrillo High School, printed an article containing quotes about the Reyes family attributed to their daughter.

The family claimed the March 2000 article quoted 16-year-old Christina as saying her father was an alcoholic who physically abused her mother and sexually molested her sister. The parents have denied all accusations and claim the story was printed without their permission and without asking other family members to respond to the allegations. They filed suit after the school refused to print a retraction.

The family is appealing the decision.