Calif. court dismisses libel claim over story


School and adviser win on anti-SLAPP motion protecting free expression





CALIFORNIA — Attorneys representing the Lompoc Unified School District and a student newspaper adviser used an unusual method last fall to quash a libel suit brought by a local family.

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Jerry and Barbara Reyes' lawsuit was thrown out when California Superior Court Judge Zel Canter granted a special motion to dismiss the case under the state's anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute.

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The law was created in 1992 as a response to an increasing number of lawsuits designed to silence protected acts of expression about matters of public concern. It says that any legal action arising from an act of free speech can be dismissed, on a special motion, if the judge believes the lawsuit was brought primarily to chill free speech and the plaintiff has a "probability" of winning the case. The statute also renders the plaintiff responsible for attorney fees if the anti-SLAPP motion is granted.

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The Reyes family filed suit last year after the Fore and Aft, the student newspaper at Cabrillo High School, printed an article containing quotes about the Reyes family that were attributed to their daughter.

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The family claimed the March 2000 article quoted 16-year-old Christina as saying her father was an alcoholic who physically abused her mother and sexually molested her sister. The parents have denied all accusations and claim the story was printed without their permission and without asking other family members to respond to the allegations. They filed suit after the school refused to print a retraction.

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In granting the motion to strike, Canter called the libel suit "chilling," according to a transcript of the hearing.

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"Certainly, statements made in a student newspaper should have no less protection under the anti-SLAPP law than statements made in other commercial newspapers or on a Web site," said Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project. Goldowitz could not comment specifically on the Reyes case, being unfamiliar with the decision.

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Still, the case is believed to be the first time the anti-SLAPP law has been used in defense of a high school newspaper. In 1999, a state superior court judge threw out a libel case against a student journalist at San Jose State University's Daily Spartan under the same statute. Numerous professional publications, such as Mother Jones magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, have benefited from the law's protections.

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The family is appealing the court's decision.n

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Case:

Reyes v. Lompoc Unified School Dist., No. 1040716 (Calif. Super. Ct. Santa Barbara Cty. Sept. 26, 2001)


reports, Spring 2002