UPDATED: Student blogger loses libel suit in California small claims court

CALIFORNIA — A student blogger at the University of California at Berkeley lost a small claims libel lawsuit filed against him by a FrontPageMag.com columnist whose articles the student’s blog scrutinized.

While exploring his remaining legal options following the June 13 decision, the student, Yaman Salahi, is asking for donations on his blog to help pay the $7,500 that the judge awarded to the columnist, Lee Kaplan.

Salahi started the blog in May 2006 to “take a critical look at [Kaplan’s] articles and point out inaccuracies or falsifications,” he said. Salahi said Kaplan is a local figure involved in covering student activism.

After repeatedly threatening litigation, Kaplan sued in September for libel and tortious business interference.

“Instead of criticizing my politics, he tried to go after my personal reputation as a journalist,” Kaplan said. “He put up things saying I’ve been sued for libel, that I’ve engaged in criminal activity, that I’ve violated contracts,” Kaplan said.

In the lawsuit, Kaplan alleged that Salahi called him a “douche bag,” but Salahi said the phrase never appeared on his blog. “He’s completely lying,” Kaplan said.

Second, Kaplan claimed Salahi threatened to ruin his employer’s business if Kaplan was not fired, costing Kaplan at least $40,000.

Salahi refuted the claim, explaining that he once contacted Kaplan’s Web host to complain that Kaplan had accused Salahi of membership in the American Nazi party. Kaplan also claimed the Web host was a potential employer and Salahi’s complaint lost him the job, Salahi said.

Kaplan said in a phone interview that he never called Salahi a Nazi.

“The courts don’t protect speech that’s defamatory, but I don’t think that I’ve done anything defamatory,” Salahi said. “I think this poses a serious danger for other people’s First Amendment rights and mine. I’ve basically been punished for writing things I didn’t actually write.”

But Kaplan refuted those claims.

“This was not a case of someone depriving him or bloggers of their First Amendment rights,” Kaplan said. “The First Amendment does not permit someone to engage in libel and defamation, and it doesn’t permit you to contact and make threats to people who you do business with.”

Because no written opinions are given in small claims court, the judge did not rule on the specifics of the case. “Nothing stipulates that I have to take the Web site down,” Salahi said.

Salahi said he will continue blogging. “If I did take the Web site down, that would only encourage [Kaplan] and others to continue to abuse small claims courts with this kind of lawsuit,” he said.

While California law protects defendants from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, in which powerful individuals or organizations try to intimidate weaker entities through the burdensome costs of legal defense, the judge dismissed Salahi’s anti-SLAPP motion as inappropriate for small claims court.

Small claims courts in California have lenient standards of evidence and procedural rules. Salahi said the judge never called the three witnesses he brought to testify.

Kaplan said he chose to bring the suit to small claims court “because it was the easiest and cheapest route to go. If I had pursued this in superior court my legal fees would have probably eaten up everything I would have made,” he said. “Plus it would have taken years to accomplish the case. As it is, in small claims court, it took over a year.”

Salahi’s appeal of the ruling was rejected in superior court.

“He had two separate trials, he had legal representation, he was in superior court, there was plenty of evidence, and all he’s doing is being a crybaby,” Kaplan said.