Thursday, May 2, 2013

Calif. Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal of Mayoral Candidate's Libel Suit Against Weekly

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A three-member panel of the California Court of Appeal's first appellate district this week upheld a trial judge's dismissal of unsuccessful Oakland Mayoral Candidate Marcie Hodge's defamation suit against weekly East Bay Express columnist Robert Gammon based on the Golden State's anti-SLAPP(Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute [Cal. Civ. Proc. Code sec. 425.16].

When Hodge, an incumbent Peralta Community College District trustee, bid in 2010 to be Oakland's mayor, a piece by political columnist Gammon entitled The Baffling Mayoral Bid of Marica Hodge, according to the appellate court opinion by Justice J. Anthony Kline, "raised questions regarding whether (Hodge) was running for mayor as a favor to...fellow candidate for mayor Don Perata, who, Gammon suggested, was supporting her campaign in an effort to siphon off African-American votes from other, more viable mayoral candidates."

As reported by Courthouse News Service, Hodge sued the weekly and its editor, along with Gammon, for defamation, but an Alameda County Superior Court judge granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the action under the anti-SLAPP law, which upholds free speech against lawsuits brought to silence or intimidate individuals. The statute's successful application potentially could enable the defendants to recoup attorneys fees.

Justice Kline's opinion found Gammon's claim in his column that Hodge ran as a spoiler to be protected opinion because conjecture about her motives was neither true nor false and therefore, incapable of supporting a defamation claim. Likewise, Gammon's column's statement that Hodge's tenure as a college trustee "has been plagued with scandal" was rhetorical hyperbole and protected opinion, as was Gammon suggesting Hodge had "completely flopped" in her mayoral debate performance. Other statements in the column alleging a Peralta colleague had admonished her and that she had been the target of a probe by the board for alleged use of a district credit card, Justice Kline concluded, were protected under the fair report privilege.

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