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.
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 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. An injunction is usually issued with little or no time for the defendant to oppose it. The procedure is that the plaintiff files an ex parte application with just 24 hours notice to the other side. The plaintiff’s attorney may have taken weeks to prepare a carefully crafted application supported by any number of declarations from witnesses, but the defendant gets just 24 hours to put together an opposition. Indeed, it’s far worse, because notice must be given 24 hours in advance, but the application may not be served until just four hours before the hearing, depending on the procedure followed by a particular court. If good cause can be shown, the ex parte application can be sought with no notice to the other side. A defendant could be ordered to stop speaking before the judge has ever heard his side of the story. Is that fair? Continue reading
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 for the comments she had made at the city council meeting. We were retained to fight the defamation action.
It is seldom that we are presented with such a clear SLAPP suit. 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 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 therefore 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 therefore illegal and unprotected.
Plaintiff was trying to say that our client’s speech at the city council meeting was illegal and therefore 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 in Plaintiff’s opinion 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.
[Update — October 14, 2011] The council member did not write us an $18,000 check. We had to garnish her wages, and she represented herself in court seeking to reduce the amount being deducted from her paychecks. To her credit, we were seeking $800 per check but she persuaded the court that given her financial circumstances it should be reduced. She was asking that nothing be taken, but the Court settled on $500 per check (every two weeks). I bring this up only for the lesson it offers. It is outrageous that a politician would try to use legal action to silence a critic based on something said at a city council meeting. The judgment is not so large that it will have any significant impact on her finances, but it is good to know that each of her next 40 or so paycheck stubs (adding costs and interest) will provide a reminder that a frivolous action has consequences.