Calif. courts toss out libel claims

CALIFORNIA ‘ State legislation intended to protect expression regarding matters of public concern broke new ground late last year when two appellate panels provided free-speech protections to students and high school media.

Two libel cases focusing on the rights of high school students to publish or pass along controversial comments made by classmates were thrown out of the California Court of Appeals in December 2002. At issue in both cases was whether the relaying of such comments should be protected under the state anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation statute, also known as anti-SLAPP law, initiated in 1992.

The appellate panels said it should, becoming among the first to extend the protections to high school students and student media.

The California anti-SLAPP law was created in response to an increasing number of lawsuits designed to muzzle protected acts of expression regarding 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.

The first case that extended protection privileges to high school media involved Cabrillo Senior High School. An anti-SLAPP motion was granted to the school’s administration and newspaper adviser, thwarting a lawsuit brought by two families who claimed comments attributed to their daughters in the student newspaper were defamatory and an invasion of privacy.

An article in the March 2000 student newspaper, Fore & Aft, discussed the effect of divorce on students at the high school in Lompoc. One student was quoted as saying her ‘dad had a lot of affairs,’ and another allegedly said her ‘dad drank and beat [her] mom.’

In its decision, the three-judge appeals court panel ruled that the families failed to show that their daughters ‘did not make statements attributed to them or that the statements contained false factual allegations.’ It added that the Fore & Aft was protected under the anti-SLAPP statute because it was a ‘public forum.’

‘The Fore & Aft was a vehicle for communicating a message about public matters to a large and interested community ‘ the students and faculty at Cabrillo Senior High School,’ Associate Justice Kenneth R. Yegan wrote. ‘Furthermore, the newspaper served a very public communicative purpose promoting open discussion of the issues it covered.’

Paul Kremser, attorney for the school district, said the court did not take issue with the fact that the Fore & Aft was a student publication.

‘That didn’t trouble them at all,’ Kremser said. ‘They looked at it as a garden variety defamation case.’

The court, however, criticized the newspaper’s decision to publish the students’ names in the story, saying it added little value and ‘may actually stifle the free flow of information.’

Another case extended anti-SLAPP privileges to a student at Antelope Valley Union High School. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Kristina Tapia, who was sued, along with her school and Los Angeles County, for defamation and invasion of privacy.

The suit was filed by two of Tapia’s classmates who were investigated by school and police officials for obtaining bomb-making instructions and making death threats in April 1999. Just days after the fatal shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Tapia reported to school officials that she overheard one of the students, David Belisle, say he wanted ‘to kill people.’

After learning of the remarks, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arrested Belisle and took him in handcuffs from school property in plain view of media members who were camped out nearby. A school official also suspended David’s brother, Michael, after finding in his backpack a spiral notebook that contained written descriptions of how to make a diskette bomb and a hydrogen gas bomb.

The Belisle family filed the lawsuit based on the publicity surrounding the investigation of the alleged terrorist threats and David’s arrest. The school and the Tapias filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the entire complaint.

In December, the appellate court ruled that Tapia’s statements were ‘absolutely privileged’ because they were made during a criminal investigation and threw out the defamation charge.

The court also threw out the Belisle family’s false light invasion of privacy claim, saying the Belisle family ‘did not present any evidence that the school or county had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the arrest.’

Appellate judges in both cases awarded the defendants costs and attorney fees for the appeal. The Cabrillo case is considered closed, Kremser said. The Antelope Valley case was remitted back to trial court.

California is not the only state to pass anti-SLAPP legislation. At least 20 states have instituted laws aimed at preventing SLAPP and assisting victims when these suits are filed. Attempts have been made to pass a federal anti-SLAPP law, but they have not been successful.

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)