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CalCoastNews loses SLAPP fight

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A recently issued appellant court ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion may still sting a bit for a local online news site.

The July 29 ruling handed down by a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeals said that a defamation lawsuit brought against CalCoastNews may continue after an attorney for the online news site tried to bring the suit to a grinding halt with an anti-SLAPP motion. The motion argued that the suit filed by Charles Tenborg, owner of the hazardous waste management company Eco Solutions Inc., should be dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP laws, which protects those practicing free speech on government affairs matters against legal attempts to quiet them (aka strategic lawsuits against public participation).

The defamation lawsuit stems from a November 2012 article that lobbed accusations against Tenborg and his Arroyo Grande-based company. The article asserted that the company, which acted as a contractor for San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority, illegally transported waste material and that Tenborg encouraged public agencies to ignore state law.

The suit was filed against CalCoastNews and two of its reporters, Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn, in May 2013, claiming the article was “false and highly damaging,” according to a press release from the Kerr and Wagstaffe LLP law firm, which represents Tenborg. CalCoastNews responded by filing the anti-SLAPP motion in September 2013 in SLO County Superior Court, which Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman denied. CalCoastNews appealed that ruling, and the appeal was heard on June 30.

“In a concise, well-reasoned decision, Judge Tangeman rejected [CalCoastNews’] contentions,” the July 29 ruling stated. “In addition, the trial court found that Tenborg ‘provides sufficient evidence to establish the falsity of the statement[s],’ that ‘a few of the statements are clearly defamatory.’”

An attorney representing CalCoastNews, Rochelle Wilcox of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, argued that the statements at issue were quoted from a public meeting, and therefore should be protected because it was a “fair and true report.”

The appellate court ruled to the contrary, however, because it found whether the report was actually “fair and true” to be a disputed fact, because there are differing accounts of what was actually said at the meeting in question, held by the city of San Luis Obispo’s Stormwater Management Team.

“First, there is a factual dispute whether the article is a ‘fair and true report’ of the Stormwater Management Team meeting,” the court said in its ruling. The court also took issue with how the information from the meeting was cited.

“Their article in no way conveyed that they were reporting on a public meeting,” the ruling said. “To the contrary, the article suggests in its opening paragraph that it is the product of ‘a CalCoastNews investigation.’”

“As the trial court found, ‘a reader of the article would have no understanding that the article was a report on what took place at the meeting,’” the ruling said.

The news site’s attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Kevin Clune, who represented Tenborg at the June 30 hearing, told New Times that Tenborg was pleased that the lawsuit can proceed.

“Mr. Tenborg is happy to have his day in court and that Velie and Dan Blackburn, and CalCoastNews in general, should be held accountable for their lies,” Clune said. “From a practical perspective, the fact that he has overcome this really substantial obstacle in a defamation suit is a telling sign that he’ll be successful at trial.”

Velie told New Times that CalCoastNews will present more evidence in court that will support the assertions made in their initial coverage of Tenborg.

“We lost the motion on the anti-SLAPP suit, and we will go to court, and everything will be aired out in court,” Velie said. “We are very confident that the outcome of the trial will be very favorable to CalCoastNews.” 

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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