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

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


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