Calif. appellate court grants student, newspaper protection from libel claims

CALIFORNIA — Two libel cases relating to high schoolstudents’ right to publish or pass along controversial comments made byclassmates were thrown out of the California Court of Appeals less than a weekapart in December.At issue in both cases was whether the relaying ofthose comments should be protected under the state anti-Strategic LawsuitsAgainst Public Participation statute, also known as anti-SLAPP. The appellatepanels agreed they ought to be. In doing so, the judges became among the firstto extend such free-speech protections to students and high school media sincethe state law’s inception in 1992.The California anti-SLAPP law wascreated as a response to an increasing number of lawsuits designed to silenceprotected acts of expression about matters of public concern. It provides thatany legal action arising from an act of free speech can be dismissed, on aspecial motion, if the judge believes the lawsuit was brought primarily to chillfree 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 theanti-SLAPP motion is granted.The administration and newspaper adviser atCabrillo Senior High School were granted their anti-SLAPP motion, whichthwarted a lawsuit brought by two families who claimed that comments attributedto their daughters in the student newspaper were defamatory and an invasion ofprivacy. In the March 2000 Fore & Aft edition, an articlediscussed the effect of divorce on students at the high school in Lompoc. Onestudent was quoted as saying her “dad had a lot of affairs,” and anotherallegedly said her “dad drank and beat [her] mom.”In its Dec. 23, 2002,decision, the three-judge appeals court panel ruled that the families failed toshow that their daughters “did not make statements attributed to them or thatthe statements contained false factual allegations.” The court, however,criticized the newspaper’s decision to publish the names of the students whowere quoted in the story.”Naming names adds little, if any, value to thediscussion,” Associate Justice Kenneth R. Yegan wrote for the majority. “Theadverse effect seems obvious and may actually stifle the free flow ofinformation.”The court stated that the Fore & Aft nonethelesswas protected under the anti-SLAPP statute because it was a publicforum.”The Fore & Aft was a vehicle for communicating amessage about public matters to a large and interested community — thestudents and faculty at Cabrillo Senior High School,” Yegan wrote. “Furthermore,the newspaper served a very public communicative purpose promoting opendiscussion of the issues that it covered.”Paul Kremser, attorney for theschool district, said the court ruled that applying anti-SLAPP to studentpublications was almost a given. “That didn’t trouble them at all,” hesaid. “They looked at it as a garden variety defamation case.”Less thana week earlier, a three-judge panel in another division of the second appellatedistrict ruled in favor of a student at Antelope Valley Union High Schoolwho was being sued, along with her school and Los Angeles County, for defamationand invasion of privacy. The suit was filed by two of her classmates, who wereinvestigated by school and police officials for obtaining pipe bomb instructionsand making death threats. Just days after the fatal shootings atColumbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999, Kristina Tapiareported to school officials that she overheard one of the students, DavidBelisle, say that he wanted “to kill people.” After learning of those remarks,the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arrested Belisle and took him inhandcuffs from school property in plain view of media members who were campedout nearby. A school official also suspended David’s brother, Michael, afterfinding in his backpack a spiral notebook that contained written descriptions ofhow to make a diskette bomb and a hydrogen gas bomb. The Belisle familyfiled the lawsuit based upon the publicity surrounding the investigation of thealleged terrorist threats and David’s arrest. The school and the Tapias filed ananti-SLAPP motion to strike the entire complaint.In its decision on Dec.19, 2002, the appellate court threw out the defamation charge against Tapiabecause, the judges ruled, her statements were “absolutelyprivileged.””Kristina’s statements to school officials and sheriff’sdeputies were made during an ongoing investigation of possible criminalconduct,” Associate Justice Richard M. Mosk wrote for the majority.Thecourt also tossed out the false light invasion of privacy claim against theschool and county for their treatment of David during the arrest. The Belislefamily argued that officials “paraded” him around the school campus, “allowing”his photograph to appear in a newspaper.The court said that the Belislefamily “did not present any evidence that the school or county had knowledge ofor acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the arrest.””[David]was not placed in a false light — he was the subject of theinvestigation,” Mosk wrote.Both appellate judge panels awarded thedefendants costs and attorney fees for the appeal.

Warner v. Lompoc, 2002 WL 31863437 (Cal.App. 2d Dist. Dec. 23, 2002)
Belisle v. Antelope Valley Union High School District, 2002 WL 31839240 (Cal.App. 2d Dist. Dec. 19, 2002)

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