We all knew it was coming, and on Monday, January 29, in Orange County's Superior Court, it did.
The anti-SLAPP motion -- California's statute aimed at stopping those with money and power from attacking those armed only with First Amendment-protected free speech -- was evoked as a motion to dismiss Wendy McCaw's (pictured) lawsuit against Susan Paterno, the reporter who wrote "Santa Barbara Smackdown" for American Journalism Review. That article is, to date, considered the most comprehensive and probing piece covering the News-Press meltdown, which officially began in July 2006 with the firing/resignation of nine newsroom employees. Since then, the number of newspaper employees fired or leaving under distress has risen to nearly 50. (That number grew by two last week with the firings of reporter Anna Davison and assistant city editor Bob Guiliano.)
The anti-SLAPP motion -- a defense that was created by lawmakers in 1992 as a means to defeat "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" (SLAPP) -- was filed by attorney Charles "Chuck" Tobin on Monday as a "special motion to strike." The anti-SLAPP statute provides that if Paterno, a professor at Orange County's Chapman University, can show that "the challenged action is one arising from protected activity," then the court "must determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim."
Essentially, if what Paterno did as a reporter is protected by First Amendment and other constitutional rights, then the judge must immediately evaluate whether McCaw's lawsuit has any chance of success. If the judge determines that this situation does fall under the anti-SLAPP statute -- and according to legal experts monitoring this situation, it most certainly does -- then McCaw must also pay Paterno's attorney fees.
The papers filed on Monday then explain in exhausting detail why Paterno's work was protected and why McCaw claims are meritless. See the motion and supporting declaration in PDF form here. Also, to remember what McCaw's side is claiming, see their lawsuit here in PDF form.
In the conclusion of Monday's filing, attorney Chuck Tobin, a former journalist, writes, "In passing the anti-SLAPP law, California's lawmakers handed citizens a weapon to combat lawsuits filed by rich and powerful people seeking to clamp down on public scrutiny of their actions. It is doubtful that legislators envisioned the statue would be necessary to help defeat the efforts of a newspaper -- which is supposed to be committed to the promotion of ideas, not their suppression and punishment -- to silence a freelance writer and the newspaper's former journalists. Anyone would be hard-pressed to foresee a shamefully hypocritical position like the one the Santa Barbara News-Press has taken in attempting to sue Susan Paterno and American Journalism Review into silence.
"The News-Press was once a thriving outlet for reliable news reporting. In the experiences of many fine journalists who labored under Ampersand Publishing's senior management, rather than the objective chronicle of community news that it once was, the News-Press is now the personal playground of Wendy McCaw and her supporters...."
We couldn't say it better, so we won't.