Unaccompanied Canines

FIGHTING WORDS: I love the language of lawyers, and the more weirdly remote, the better. In a recent letter sent out to as many as seven local merchants, attorney Barry Cappello charged that the pro-union posters in their business establishments could generate “obloquy” toward News-Press owner and publisher Wendy P. McCaw — against whom the current Teamsters Union drive is directed. “Obloquy” is one of those beautifully archaic words used only and exclusively by lawyers in the full tumescence of their contrived indignation. Its chief value, I suspect, is that it allows the user to charge his or her client twice the normal rate. For the record, it’s Latin for “to speak against” and generally refers to harshly negative language.

I was willing to give Cappello serious style points for including “obloquy,” but then he blew it by failing to deploy its kissing cousin and Siamese twin, “calumny.” These two go together like “rock ’n’ roll” or “death and taxes.” For Barry to use “obloquy” without “calumny” constitutes legal grounds for McCaw to demand her money back. But Cappello’s real offense in all this was sending out the nasty letters in the first place. Cappello threatened to sue the business owners if they didn’t immediately remove the offending pro-union signs, which read “McCaw Obey the Law.” Barry’s alleged gripe is that the slogan implies that the News-Press’s imperious publisher is, in fact, a lawbreaker, which in some circles might be considered defamatory.

One can see the point, but only sort of. First, there is the issue of fair play. In its relentless editorializing against the Teamsters, the News-Press habitually accuses the union of extortion and all kinds of criminal conduct, verbally exhuming the corpse of ex-union boss and crime stooge Jimmy Hoffa at every possible opportunity. By contrast, “McCaw Obey the Law” is skim milk. Secondly, the law allows a certain degree of rhetorical excess in the conduct of political campaigns, on the sensible ground that free and vigorous public debate, however messy, is far superior for all concerned than any more hamstrung alternatives.

The News-Press has taken full advantage of this in its editorial pages, calling people with whom it politically disagrees hypocrites, cowards, and even killers. For the News-Press to insist that the other side play by another, more genteel set of rules is, well, hypocritical and cowardly. And last but not least, you can actually make a case that McCaw has, in fact, violated the letter of the law in several instances. For example, she had a fence erected around the News-Press parking lot without getting the necessary city permits and was forced to take it down. And the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has reportedly stated it will prosecute her on two counts of violating national labor law. The NLRB found that McCaw killed writer Starshine Roshell’s column in retaliation against Roshell’s conspicuous and public support for the union. And such retaliatory action happens to be against the law.

If most shopkeepers and hair salon owners don’t know what the word “obloquy” means, they definitely understand it will cost them more than they can afford to hire someone who does. For obvious reasons, most would rather avoid the hassle of a legal battle, especially against the sue-happy McCaw, whose wealth is measured in the hundreds of millions. As a result, the signs went down shortly after Barry’s letters went out. The good news is that in at least one instance, the sign has gone right back up. Johnny Morosin, owner of the Italian/Greek Deli and Pizzeria, decided he didn’t feel like getting pushed around. So he snipped off the bottom part of the poster indicating its Teamster affiliation. Then he added in tiny print the letter “s” after the word “obey.” Johnny, whose family has been doing business in Santa Barbara for three generations, is waiting for Cappello’s reaction. “Hey, we’re all on the same side. … I’m with Wendy and Barry now,” he said. “As a capitalist business owner, we should all stick together and whip everyone who doesn’t agree with us.”

I’m betting Cappello is too smart to react to such a gambit, but McCaw is probably too stubborn not to. After all, she just sued Sue Paterno — the reporter who recently wrote a lengthy article about the News-Press meltdown for the American Journalism Review — for slander, libel, and defamation of character. The lawsuit, notable because it names Paterno personally but not the magazine itself, complains the article was one-sided and unfair.

For the record, Wendy and all the News-Press top management refused repeated requests for interviews. But more than that, McCaw attorney David Millstein actually threatened to sue Paterno for approaching News-Press managers to get management’s side of the story. In the art of stonewalling, that should get an award. The logic behind any of McCaw’s actions continues to elude me. I fail to see any sense in her decision to wage war on three fronts simultaneously: against her staff, the community, and now the small businesses upon whom the News-Press advertising depends. As to the former, Wendy recently forced her employees to sign affidavits swearing they didn’t leak the recent memo announcing she’d fire employees for disloyalty. And to prove her point, last week she fired her most experienced and knowledgeable business executive, Randy Alcorn, for thinking thoughts insufficiently loyal for her tastes. As for Cappello’s nasty notes, someone with a cooler head than McCaw’s might have thought it ill advised to threaten someone like Johnny Morosin, who knows absolutely everyone in town.

The real mystery here is why someone as smart and savvy as Barry Cappello is taking McCaw’s case. It can’t be the money. After all, Barry just gave $1.25 million to UCLA to have a civil litigator program and ceremonial courtroom named after him. According to the press release announcing the donation, Cappello has won no less than $250 million in verdicts throughout his career and $1 billion in settlements. Maybe Barry’s just bored and itching for a fight. If that’s the case, he’ll get one. But even if Barry wins, he’s going to lose. When it’s over, his first name will become “Obloquy,” his last will be “Calumny.” When that happens, Barry will have no one but himself to sue. The good news for Barry, I guess, is that he’ll have a strong case. And even better, very deep pockets

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