Posts Tagged ‘free speech’

Can a Court Order Someone Not to Defame You?

Temporary Restraining Order

I get many calls from victims of Internet defamation who want me to go to court and get an order to stop the defamation. In other words, they want a court order that stops someone from speaking or publishing statements that the victims deems to be defamatory. Is that possible?

Like most legal questions, the answer is, “it depends.”

California law is very clear that after a trial has determined that the statements being made are defamatory, the court can order the defendant to stop making those statements. The reason is that defamatory speech is not protected, so once it has been found to be defamatory, the court can order the defendant not to repeat the defamatory statements. Once the court has issued such an order, it can be enforced just like any other court order, with the court assessing sanctions and even jail time if the defendant refuses to comply.

By the way, most attorneys do not appear to be aware that a “gag order” is constitutionally permissible. In law school it was drummed into their heads that a court cannot order someone to speak, but they fail to realize that once a court has found that a statement is defamatory, it is no longer protected speech. I see complaint after complaint where the attorney has not requested injunctive relief, and that does not serve the client well. Without the injunction, even if the defamed party prevails on the defamation action, there will be nothing to prevent the defendant from saying the same things again, necessitating an entirely new case. As a practical matter, a defendant just having been found liable for defamation will probably not want to be sued again for the same comments, but I prefer not to leave things to chance.

So you absolutely can silence someone AFTER the court has found the speech is defamatory, but the much tougher challenge is getting a court to order a defendant to stop defaming the victim BEFORE there has been a trial. Typically, it takes at least a year to take a matter to trial, and that may be far too long for the defamation victim. A temporary injunction can be obtained in a matter of days, so that affords a much faster remedy if it is available.

But there is a problem. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is Rush Limbaugh Facing a Claim for Defamation?

Rush Limbaugh Liable for Slander

I’m getting calls from media outlets about some comments made by Rush Limbaugh, and whether they constitute defamation. I’m always happy to talk to you reporters and provide comments, but thought I’d put this post up to provide some background for your articles.

Apparently Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the controversy over religious organizations being forced to pay for birth control for their employees. Following an appearance by Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student, at an informal House Democratic hearing last month. Ms. Fluke testified in favor of Mr. Obama’s mandate, which Georgetown and other Catholic institutions have roundly condemned as an infringement on their religious rights.

At the hearing, Ms. Fluke said fellow students at her Jesuit university pay as much as $1,000 a year for contraceptives that are not covered by student health plans.

On Wednesday, during his radio show, Limbaugh allegedly said:

“What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute . . . she wants to be paid to have sex … She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception.”

Accusing a woman of being unchaste is the classic, old-school form of slander. Here is the definition of slander under California’s Civil Code § 46:

Slander is a false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means which:

1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;

2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;

3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;

4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity; or

5. Which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.

I’ll bet you never knew it was slander to accuse a man of being impotent, but I digress. There it is in black and white – it is slander to impute to a woman a “want of chastity”. (For those of you who carefully read the section and see that it said “imputes to HIM . . . a want of chastity”, you get bonus points. However, there is a catchall statute that provides statements of gender in statutes don’t exclude the other gender, so you can’t accuse men or women of being loose.)

So is Rush Limbaugh toast?

Not at all, because defamation law makes clear that context is everything. Back in 2009 I wrote about the case of radio commentator Tom Martino who stated on his consumer show that the sellers of a boat were “lying”. The plaintiffs/sellers took umbrage with that remark, and sued Martino for defamation. Defendants responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the statement was merely an opinion and therefore could not constitute defamation. The trial court agreed with defendants and ruled that as a matter of law the comments did not constitute defamation. Under the anti-SLAPP statute, plaintiffs were ordered to pay all of defendants’ attorney fees.

A true opinion cannot constitute defamation unless it is offered as an assertion of fact. While it was true that the radio program host accused the plaintiffs of “lying” to their customer, that could not seriously be taken as an assertion of fact given the context of the show. As the court observed, “The Tom Martino Show is a radio talk show program that contains many of the elements that would reduce the audiences’ expectation of leaning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host and heated controversy. In the context of the show, Martino was simply listening to the complaint of a caller, and possessed no independent knowledge of the facts beyond what he was being told. It could not be taken, in that context, that he intended his “lying” comment to be taken as a verifiable fact.

So it is with Rush Limbaugh. He knows nothing about this woman who believes others should pay for her birth control, and he was engaging in a little hyperbole about what that makes her. He was creating a false syllogism to make a point, claiming that based on her testimony she wants to have sex, she can’t have sex without birth control, she wants someone else to pay for her birth control, so she is being paid to have sex.

As the old saying goes, you can sue for anything, but a defamation action by Ms. Fluke would not survive the first motion (especially if I was the attorney defending free speech).

And speaking of free speech, the fight for free speech should not depend on the politics of the speaker. Here is a colorful article from someone who hates Limbaugh, but quite properly would fight for his right of free speech.

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Dr. Phil Loses Anti-SLAPP Motion


Dr. Phil needs his head examinied.  He failed to call us, and predictably lost both his anti-SLAPP motion and appeal as a result.

But seriously, a recent case against the Dr. Phil show provides some interesting insights into the reasoning by the Court of Appeal on anti-SLAPP motions.  In this case, Dr. Phil decided to create a Big Brother type episode, with participants volunteering to stay in a communal environment in order to show some aspects of psychology, presumably.  A day or so into the stay, the occupants were told a dinner guest was at the door, and when it was opened, there stood a naked man.  Two of the women, one in her 50s the other in her 20s, were very offended and intimidated by being forced to invite a naked man into their living environment, and hid in one of the rooms, asking the show’s staff to let them leave.  This was met with laughter by the staff, and they were not permitted to leave.  They sued for false imprisonment, negligence, infliction of emotional distress and other claims.

Dr. Phil brought an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the episode was an exercise of free speech and therefore protected.  The trial court disagreed on two grounds, finding that the facts did not create a free speech issue, and concluding that even if free speech was implicated, the women were likely to prevail in any event.  Dr. Phil appealed, and while he won a minor issue on the points raised, he still lost the motion.  The Court of Appeal ruled (in an unpublished decision) that the show did involve free speech under the anti-SLAPP statute, but agreed with the trial court that the women are likely to prevail on their claims.

The case therefore illustrates how the anti-SLAPP statute is designed to protect against frivolous suits, not to defeat valid claims that just happen to involve free speech issues.

Shame on Dr. Phil and his show.  Crazy or not, some viewers of his show consider it educational, with legitimate travels into psychological issues.  Yes, the women signed releases, but every contract is interpreted in context.  They argued, and now two courts have agreed, that they thought this was going to be some legitimate exploration of psychology along with treatment.  The naked man was obviously for shock value, and did nothing to advance the therapy of the participants.  Societal mores and the criminal statutes that reflect them still hold that indecent exposure is a crime.  Dr. Phil’s show cannot contract to permit criminal behavior, certainly not when the parties to the contract would have no basis to anticipate that conduct.

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A Recent Victory Illustrates anti-SLAPP Motion Application

A recent anti-SLAPP victory by our office serves to illustrate the application of the anti-SLAPP laws and how the process, that was meant to quickly dispose of SLAPP cases, can get so convoluted.

The Case of the Outraged City Council Member

In this case, our (future) client addressed a city council meeting on a matter she felt was important to the city. Specifically, the city had been rocked by some controversy involving city council members, and our client was speaking to the issue of how the newly-elected council members should go about performing their duties. To illustrate the point, she cited the example of a former council member who had taken money from special interests. The city council member in question took umbrage with the accusation that she had acted unethically, and sued our client for defamation. We were retained to fight the defamation action.

It is seldom that we are presented with such a clear SLAPP suit. Remember, SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. What better example of public participation is there than a citizen addressing their city council? Indeed, under Civil Code section 47, any comments made during a “legislative proceeding” are absolutely privileged (meaning they can never be defamatory). Better yet from the standpoint of an anti-SLAPP motion, section 425.16(e)(1) provides that statements made before a legislative proceeding are protected speech.

So let’s run the facts through the two prongs of the anti-SLAPP analysis. First, as counsel for the defendant, it was our burden to show that the speech was protected within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute. That was a no-brainer in this instance, since the words were spoken at a city council meeting. And since the conduct falls under a specific anti-SLAPP section of 425.16, there was no need to show that the topic was a matter of public interest. “Any matter pending before an official proceeding possesses some measure of ‘public significance’ owing solely to the public nature of the proceeding, and free discussion of such matters furthers effective exercise of the petition rights § 425.16 was intended to protect.” (Briggs v. Eden Council for Hope & Opportunity (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1106, 1118.)

Our having shown that the speech was protected, the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis requires plaintiff to show a reasonable likelihood of success on her claim, which in this case would be impossible. Since section 47 makes speech at a city council meeting absolutely privileged, the speech by definition cannot constitute defamation.

So a slam-dunk anti-SLAPP motion, right? Not quite.

A SLAPP motion puts a stay on all discovery, which is one of the primary benefits of an anti-SLAPP motion because it keeps the plaintiff from using the discovery process as a sledgehammer to try to wear down the defendant. In this case, counsel for Plaintiff had served discovery prior to the anti-SLAPP motion, and argued that the court should permit that discovery prior to ruling on the anti-SLAPP. There is authority for the proposition that a plaintiff should be permitted to conduct discovery to determine whether the defendant acted with malice, because that takes away certain privileges under section 47. However, there is no malice exception for words spoken at a city council meeting, so no amount of discovery by the Plaintiff could have revealed information that would have defeated the anti-SLAPP motion.

Nonetheless, the court granted Plaintiff’s request for discovery, and that added two months to the process. It could have been that the court just did not understand the authorities we provided, but more likely the court was bending over backwards to give the plaintiff access to discovery, specifically because the judge knew she was going to grant the motion, and did not want Plaintiff to have any possible basis for appeal. In that sense, the judge might have done us a favor, but it is frustrating to deal with a frivolous action for an additional two months. We were successful, though, in limiting greatly limiting the discovery. The court denied Plaintiff’s request to take our client’s deposition.

As expected, the discovery revealed nothing useful to the Plaintiff. Instead, the Plaintiff attempted to argue that the conduct by Defendant was “illegal” and therefor not protected. This was another instance where there is authority for the proposition being claimed, but that legal theory had no application to the case at hand. In the case of Flatley v. Mauro, an attorney had sent threatening letters to someone, threatening to sue him if he did not pay a large settlement to a client. Normally, a letter from an attorney in anticipation of litigation would be protected speech under the litigation privilege, but the Flatley court ruled that the attorney’s letters had risen to the level of extortion, and were therefor illegal and unprotected.

Plaintiff was trying to say that our client’s speech at the city council meeting was illegal and therefor unprotected according to Flatley. And how could speech at a city council meeting ever be illegal, you ask? According to Plaintiff, it was illegal because the city council’s own guidelines state that comments should be civil, and Defendant’s comments had not been civil.

Predictably, the court understood that even if the words were interpreted to be rude, a city council’s guidelines do not amount to law, and violating them does not amount to criminal conduct. The court granted our anti-SLAPP motion, striking the defamation complaint and entering judgment in our favor. The court also awarded us over $18,000 in attorney fees against the Plaintiff.

— Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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