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McCaw “SLAPPed” Down

Appeals court dismisses News-Press suit as an attempt to silence journalist.


Smackdown: An appeals court has ruled against News-Press owner Wendy McCaw‘s libel suit aimed at a critical 2006 magazine article called “Santa Barbara Smackdown.”

In a ruling announced today (PDF), the court found that McCaw failed to show that author Susan Paterno‘s statements in the American Journalism Review story were “provably false.”

Now that the Court of Appeal has declared that absolutely none of the assertions in [Paterno’s] article, as complained about by [McCaw], are actionable, it would appear that the trial court will likely dismiss the Santa Barbara News-Press‘s lawsuit and probably award her attorneys’ fees for having to defend [McCaw’s] oppressive action,” said Ira Gottlieb, Teamsters’ attorney representing the newsroom, but not the attorney of record in this case.

Susan Paterno

Paterno’s late 2006 article offered a “behind the scenes look” at the “turmoil” engulfing the News-Press, including the dismissal or resignation of more than half of its 50-member newsroom, which left others to work in a “climate of fear and paranoia ripped from the pages of Kafka’s ‘The Trial.’”

This is a victory for journalists everywhere, and another blow to the McCavian lawyer army,” Gottlieb said.

Paterno, who directs the journalism program at Chapman University in Orange County, had defended herself by filing what is known as an anti-SLAPP action. SLAPP, which stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation, refers to suits aimed at silencing public discussion of issues.

McCaw had sued Paterno individually, imposing upon Paterno the heavy burden of having to defend herself. The magazine, where she is a senior writer and which is published by the University of Maryland, reportedly offered to pay legal costs, also assuming heavy expenses.

In her article, Paterno offered a “behind-the-scenes look” at the “turmoil” engulfing the News-Press, including the dismissal or resignation of more than half of its 50-member newsroom, which left others to work in a “climate of fear and paranoia ripped from the pages of Kafka’s ‘The Trial.’”

The article described McCaw’s efforts to “silence criticism by filing or threatening to file libel lawsuits,” the Justice J. Aronson wrote in the unanimous three-judge ruling.

McCaw claimed 33 libelous statements, two of them relating to management’s ordering then-editor Jerry Roberts to kill a story about editorial page editor Travis Armstrong‘s drunk driving sentence. An Orange County Superior Court judge previously found all but three to be nonactionable as to alleged libel, but nonetheless allowed McCaw’s attorneys to probe into the three. The appeals court now has refused to allow discovery into them, finding that the News-Press had not shown them to be provable either.

The purpose of the anti-SLAPP suit legislation is to “encourage continued participation in matters of public significance” and protect defendants from having to expend resources defending against frivolous suits, the appeals court pointed out.

It is ironic that (the News-Press), itself a newspaper publisher, seeks to weaken legal protections that are intended to secure the role of the press in a free society,” the court noted. “Newspapers and publishers, who regularly face libel litigation, were intended to be one of the prime beneficiaries of the anti-SLAPP legislation.”

News-Press attorney Barry Cappello, who was not the attorney of record in this case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday afternoon.

For Discussion:

• Does the Court’s ruling alter the media landscape in Santa Barbara?

• Will it change the way the News-Press is managed?

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Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns and a print column for Thursdays.

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